“The biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind.”
In a hugely popular post titled The Ultimate Retaliation: Pranking my Roommate with Targeted Facebook Ads, Brian Swichkow details how he freaked out a friend with a series of very specific advertisements. The friend – a sword-swallower who ironically had trouble swallowing pills – became increasingly paranoid that Facebook was somehow tracking everything he did and said. Eventually, Swichkow put him out of his misery and confessed, (“I was afraid that if I didn’t end the torture he might need psychiatric treatment.”), and the post ends with the prankster grimly awaiting the inevitable hi-tech retaliation. It’s an amusing and diverting piece, but it conceals a chilling truth: even though Facebook has more than 2.3 billion users, it’s possible to target advertising to a single individual.
UK journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who exposed the Cambridge Analytica data scandal last year, gave a TED talk a few months ago in which she described going back to the quiet Welsh town where she grew up. The steelworks and coal mines had gone decades earlier yet the town was booming, thanks in part to a £33m college, a new sports centre, a £350m regeneration project, a £77m road improvement scheme, a new train line and a new railway station all funded by the European Union. Despite this, 62% of the town’s residents voted to leave the EU. Cadwalladr was curious to know why.
They said that they wanted to take back control, which was one of the slogans in the campaign. And they told me that they were most fed up with the immigrants and with the refugees. They’d had enough.
Which was odd. Because walking around, I didn’t meet any immigrants or refugees. I met one Polish woman who told me she was practically the only foreigner in town. And when I checked the figures, I discovered that Ebbw Vale actually has one of the lowest rates of immigration in the country.
Baffled, Cadwalladr wrote her article, but after it came out a woman from the town got in touch to say she’d voted Leave because of all the scary stuff about immigration she’d seen:
So I tried to find it. But there was nothing there. Because there’s no archive of ads that people had seen or what had been pushed into their news feeds. No trace of anything, gone completely dark …
And this entire referendum took place in darkness because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were.
But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused. And you have to wonder why. Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum. And they took place on Facebook.
Despite its glib mission statement to “build community” and “bring the world closer together”, Facebook’s real mission is to make make money. It’s an advertising company, plain and simple. Its customers are its advertisers, not its users. There’s an old maxim that if the something is free then you are the product. That’s us. Users like you and I are what Facebook sells to its customers.
One of the ways it does that is through psychology. Even wondered why you can never scroll to the bottom of your message feed, or why refreshing the feed brings up a whole new batch of messages? It’s a subtle psychological trick. Facebook is saying: Don’t go away, there’s more to see here. And more. And more …
Another trick is to show you what it thinks you want to see. By making you feel a part of a group of like-minded individuals who bounce ideas and articles back and forth, it increases the likelihood that you and your fellow group members will spend more time there.
But how does Facebook know what you want to see? That’s where the really sneaky stuff comes in.
A couple of weeks ago, I showed how to see who was looking over your shoulder every time you browse the internet. How visiting a single web page can produce more than 100 third-party spies. That’s part of the answer. Facebook is almost certainly one of those spies – irrespective of where you go. But there’s more:
[Facebook] added to their own data a huge new store of data about offline, real-world behaviour, acquired through partnerships with big companies such as Experian, which have been monitoring consumer purchases for decades via their relationships with direct marketing firms, credit card companies, and retailers … These firms know all there is to know about your name and address, your income and level of education, your relationship status, plus everywhere you’ve ever paid for anything with a card. Facebook could now put your identity together with the unique device identifier on your phone.
That quote comes from a detailed look at the company by UK writer John Lanchester. In this piece in the London Review of Books he continues;
… Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. … I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
That’s why Facebook doesn’t care about fake news. Because its real purpose is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, and it doesn’t care where those eyeballs come from …
In the final three months of the  US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others …Craig Silverman, Buzzfeed News
… because you are the product.