UEA Analytica? Only angry reacts

You know when you have a bad week? A bad few weeks in fact? Well, you can probably empathise with Facebook. You don’t need me to explain the torrent of negative publicity the social networking site has received in the past few months.

But what does this mean for us? Some have suggested that even before the recent publicity, Facebook, was already slumping towards the technological abyss now home to Myspace, Bebo and the sad-girl parts of Tumblr. Facebook of course, is a much bigger beast than its social media precursors ever were, but the principle is hardly unthinkable. An eMarketer report earlier this year quoted in The Guardian highlighted the shifting demographic of Facebook towards older users, predicting that 700,000 fewer 12-20-year-olds would be regular Facebook users this year in the UK compared to last year. However, as with any statistic, a knee-jerk reaction may not be the most helpful, especially when the chances are your last piece of online news was accessed through Facebook, and that’s where you find out the majority of information about your friends.

Make no mistake, Facebook is still enormous. If you’re not on it and you’re at UEA, you’re still the odd one out. Many users of the dating app Tinder, authenticated via the user’s Facebook account, were concerned soon after the recent revelations, when they were unable to use the app for a short time as Facebook tightened up its third-party app authentication.

Although it was sorted far more quickly than many of its users’ love lives, experts at the time warned that these problems could happen again with other apps. In fairness, Facebook has never made any secret of the fact that it makes profit out of using advertising to make its money, and using what you willingly tell it to target more relevant adverts to you – meaning they can charge their advertisers more.

So, how can you find out what data Facebook has on you? It’s actually pretty straightforward. Click the arrow at the top of the Facebook screen on desktop, click ‘Settings’ and there should be an option to ‘Download a copy of my data’ or similar. You then need to click the green button ‘Start My Archive’, enter your password and then you are promised an email soon, to the account you signed up with. When I requested a copy of my Facebook data, it took about fifteen minutes until I received an email with a link to click, which took me back to Facebook’s underbelly. I was required again to input my password, and received the “caution” message warning that the download could contain personal data, which has so amused other writers. It took nearly as long to download the zip file as to receive the email – it’s a hefty download that includes every message sent and received, plus JPEGs not only of all photos I’d sent but all the photos I’d received, even from group chats, some of which I never imagined Facebook would still have on file after several years.

Don’t like that? Well, what about deleting your Facebook account? That’s the only way to ensure all of your information is removed from their servers – as I explore below, the names of your friends are retained even if you unfriend them, and messages even if you delete them.

There have been calls to boycott the platform, and deleting is also a relatively straightforward process. However, no-one wants to be the first in their friendship group to delete and risk missing out on the latest killer meme or engagement announcement. Plus, it’s nice to have a trawl back occasionally to see what you were doing and thinking on this day a few years ago (even if you set this to being between yourself and Facebook only).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called before the US congress last week to answer questions about his handling of the recent events. The general consensus among commentators was that although he didn’t set the world on fire and was criticised by some members of the public for being too wooden, Zuckerberg performed competently and didn’t make any huge errors. Writing on his, er, Facebook page before the Congress hearing, Mr Zuckerberg said: “I will do everything I can to make Facebook a place where everyone can stay closer with the people they care about, and to make sure it’s a positive force in the world.”

But has Facebook ever really been a “positive force”? It’s certainly useful for its users, and it’s a good thing for advertisers. A senior UEA lecturer, Dr Paul Bernal from the school of Law, has been at the forefront of the media reaction to the Cambridge Analytica story. With his research specialising on privacy and data protection online , Dr Bernal spoke to news outlets like the Independent and the BBC, offering advice on keeping data safe online and reflecting on the negative publicity Facebook has seen.

Writing in The Independent, Dr Bernal said: “Facebook is gathering more data all the time – including through its associated operations in Instagram, WhatsApp and more. Its analyses are being refined and becoming more effective all the time – and more people like Cambridge Analytica are becoming aware of the possibilities and how they might be used.

“How it might be stopped, or at least slowed down, is another matter. This is all based on the fundamental operations of Facebook, so while we rely on Facebook, it is hard to see a way out. By choosing to let ourselves become dependent, we have built this trap for ourselves. Until we find our way out of Facebook, more of this is inevitable.”

And despite all the outrage at the buying and selling of personal data, internet users have characteristically seen the funny side, creating a plethora of brilliant jokes and memes. “Durham Analytica is just as good” tweeted one, while a number of pictures have been doing the rounds online of Zuckerberg’s testimony with witty captions.

Joking aside, the recent Facebook headlines raise questions about who we trust with our data, especially as students with many years of uploading, shopping and being exposed to advertising ahead of us. Information on what we’re likely to be interested in buying is a valuable commodity to advertisers.

However, any expectations of a mass exodus from Facebook seem extremely premature. With the firm’s share prices slowly growing again after the drop they saw in light of the Cambridge Analytica coverage, this negative press seems to be merely a blip in Facebook’s domination of most of our online lives. But the lid has been lifted on the difficult subject of exactly what information we give corporations and their paying customers online, and with discussions about our data online coming into the mainstream like never before, it might make us think before uploading to Facebook or allowing apps to log in via Facebook.


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Tony Allen

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August 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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