Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp were offline for six hours and I only know about it because regular news sources started reporting on it. That means I’m doing something good.
On my other website I published a fairly long piece of writing (in Dutch). The starting point for writing that piece was a screenshot of a facebook post that was included in an academic paper which analysed all posts on HPV vaccination within a certain time frame. This particular post got a special mention since it was by far the most shared and commented on. The whole lay-out and wording used in that post sent out warning signals for being untrue. I got curious. What are the actual facts and arguments behind this message?
I thought I would write a blog post about it. Then I started documenting my findings during my search and quickly the whole exercise to follow my curiousity resulted in a three week long research into the use of false arguments, misinterpretations of statistics and scientific research results. I came to the conclusion that the group of authors I came across during my research try to win a political debate by using tragic illnesses and deaths of young people as a starting point to discredit a company and the government.
Through my research I learned some lessons about how false arguments and interpretations spread between websites, what kind of tricks organisations use to look more credible than they really are and what types of signals to look for when checking for credibility of messages. By sharing these lessons I hope to vaccinate the reader against the next fake news story that plays your emotion.
So instead of a blog post, I published a blog research article of about 7500 words. If you’re fluent in Dutch, go to Storymines and check it out. Get yourself lost in a world of thoughts that might not be yours. I really enjoyed writing it and I hope you will be immunized afterwards.
I just finished listening to an episode of Recode Decode in which the authors of the book called The Hive, the couple Lyga and Baden, were a guest. They talked about their Young Adult book in which they explore the idea what the consequences would be for people when acting on social media is mandatory and your behaviour on it has real, think financial or physical, consequences. The book, published in 2019, sounds like something I should read. Its theme fits perfectly within the research I’m doing on Facebook right now. On the to order list. The podcast episode was wonderful to listen to as well, as it was an interesting discussion on whether and how we can fix it for the next generation. A direct link to the episode is not available, so you’ll have to search for it in your podcast app. It’s called Barry Lyga and Morgan Baden: What if everyone had to use social media?
I downloaded my fb data and started digging in the data. The folder ads_and_businesses was my biggest interest. Not very surprising, but there is little data to go through. Five brands under ‘Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information’. Seven brands under ‘Your Off-Facebook Activity’. One brand on this list surprised me. Headspace. Headspace is a wonderful service to help me meditate. I’ve been a subscriber to Headspace for six years. It has been a big help to get me through rough patches in life. I pay good money for this service on a yearly basis (just under €45) so I was surprised to see Headspace participating in surveillance capitalism. Also, how could they make a match between my Headspace account and my Facebook account? Time to dive deeper into privacy policies and data collected by Headspace.
Headspace proactively shares data with Facebook, including paying customers
This is what fb logged on my Headspace behavior in the past few months. It does not seem to be a complete list.
1. DATA WE MAY COLLECT
- Facebook profile information, such as name, email address, and Facebook ID, if you choose to log in to the Products through Facebook
9. USES MADE OF THE DATA
- To serve our advertisements to you through third party platforms, such as Facebook or Google, on other sites and apps or across your devices, to the extent that you have provided consent for such uses under applicable law.
11. DISCLOSURE OF YOUR DATA
- With third parties, such as Facebook, in order to serve Headspace advertisements on such third party platforms, to the extent that you have consented to such practices under applicable law.
I’m already a customer, so Headspace doesn’t have to show me ads on fb. If they want to communicate with me, they have a valid email address to connect with me. The only reason I can think of they want a connection to fb through me is to reach my friends. Well, guess what. I already recommend the service to my friends, by telling them in person. Way more convincing than an ad on fb. But knowing what I know now, they make me think twice about recommending Headspace to my friends. They even make me re-evaluate whether I’ll want to renew my subscription.
In a week or two I will file a new data request with fb to see if new data on Headspace log ins showed up or not. I’ll report back on that in a few weeks, when I have a better answer to the more disturbing question:
How does Headspace know who I am on Facebook?
The curious thing about this case is that I have absolutely no idea how Headspace was able to match my Headspace id with that of my fb account. In this article fb explains how businesses can match their clients with fb users. By uploading phone numbers, which will then be encoded, businesses can serve ads to their clients using fb. Fb implies this is done using email addresses, phone numbers or other personal information. Now here’s the thing. I can’t think of a single piece of information Headspace has on me to match me with fb. I use unique email addresses for both Headspace and Facebook. That can’t provide a match. And as far to my knowledge I never provided my telephone number to Headspace. I use a nickname for my Headspace account, and payment for the service is done through paypal, again using an unique email address. So how does Headspace know what my Facebook account is? In order to find this out I sent a data request to Headspace for my full record. Perhaps they know more of me than they show me in my account information. This story will be continued.
As part of my research on facebook, I wanted to know what they still have on record of me. Therefore I made a download request yesterday for my information (report still pending). In the mean time I also dived into my ad preferences. It took a while to find the page as it was not linked to on the settings page as suggested in this help file. Anyway, I found it.
As far as my ad preferences go, fb doesn’t have a lot of info to go on.
During the last period I used fb more regularly, I made it a sport to actively hide all ads they showed me.
I also removed all interests fb used to serve me ads.
It is interesting fb uses the word removed for this, as they clearly have just categorised my interests differently. From allowed to use for ads, to not allowed to use for ads. They have to keep this on record, otherwise they can’t make this distinction for me.
What I hadn’t seen before was this section:
You can now hide specific ad topics. All three of them: alcohol, parenting and pets. The first is probably to serve alcoholics who are trying to stay off it, the second probably introduced for those who are grieving a lost baby and are not interested in ads for the latest and cutest baby things, and there must be a hell of load of pet haters in the world (or grievers for lost pets). You can suggest other topics, but it is not in fb’s interest to make this a long list. (BTW, I would suggest all pregnant women hide parenting ads, as you’re value goes up for advertisers. You’re in need of a lot of stuff and only want the best for your baby. Advertisers know this and will convince you to buy more than you need. The best advice I got was from a friend who said to run all purchases through the Man first (but even he turned out not to be a rational decision maker all the time) ).
An interesting pattern I noticed. The first two days I logged into fb I didn’t receive any ads. A wonderful experience I can tell you! However, today my timeline was showing group suggestions and ads again. I guess it is a strategy to not bother you with ads the first time after a long absence. It could also be that it needs to recollect some data points (which posts I’m lingering on e.g.) before knowing what to serve me. I put my money on seduction, though. Anything to lure you back into the stream.
I’m curious to see what the fb files tell me about myself. I just checked, and the file is there to download. I didn’t receive the promised e-mail to tell when the file was ready, though. The file expires on July 5th. In other words, good that I checked for it myself. More on this later.
I’m currently busy translating all the things I’ve read in recent months about storytelling, surveillance capitalism and conspiracy theory into actionable documents. My goal is to develop material to guide people in making more informed choices when it comes to online interaction. To get there I first need to untangle all the tiny bits and pieces that float around. Luckily a thing like Scapple was developed to assist me in this quest. For instance this is a screenshot of my attempt to disentangle all the reasoning behind not wanting to use Facebook (and the company’s other tools).
If you have strong compelling arguments against or pro feeding Zuck’s empire, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments (or send me an email).