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Have you ever spoken to a friend about some product or brand, or just lazily searched for it on Google or Amazon, and then felt surprised when Facebook or Instagram showed you an ad for the exact same product?
Chances are it has happened to you not once, but many times. It has happened to me too, and to many others, and people who noticed started a conspiracy theory that our smartphones, or apps on them like Facebook or Instagram were actively spying on us by listening to our conversations.
While that is not the truth, the reality is equally scary. Big technology companies do track our online behaviour and this data is used to target us as consumers. Even a single ‘like’ on Facebook reveals a lot. To repeat what has often been said in this context –when the service is free, the product is you.
However, the problem is not limited to manipulating our online shopping. If there are any lessons we’ve learnt from the 2016 US elections, it is that even critical behaviours like who we vote for, are subject to manipulation, and this is a real danger to our lives as citizens of a democracy. Facebook, and other social media sites are used to sow fake news and create chaos, and not just in the US.
The latest scandal involving the data firm Cambridge Analytica (which was used by the Trump campaign in the US), however is the most chilling example of how easily our data can be taken and used to guide our behaviour. It sends a chill down my spine to realize that the company managed to gain access to the data of over 50 million Facebook profiles through a simple personality quiz — the kind you have most likely taken on Facebook. And even more scary is the fact that Cambridge Analytica has gone on record saying that it has worked with political parties for elections in India.
We live so much of our lives online now. It has become impossible to imagine a life in which we did not share so much information with others. As I scroll through my Facebook timeline, I see at least two people who have used random third party apps. “What is the real meaning of your name?” asks one, and “Which type of Woman Are You?” asks the other. And I get it, these tests are fun to do and they do give a bit of an ego boost when they say nice things about oneself (and they only say nice things!). But using such apps hands over not only your data, but also in some cases, even the data of your friends over to the third party! The intention is not to shame anyone for taking these tests, but to prompt questioning of whether it is really worth it. And this is not just the case with such personality tests or fun quizzes. Many games and other apps also have the option of signing in through Facebook, which, while an easy, convenient option, is also a way for the app to gain access to data.
The bottom line is that we cannot risk using social media unthinkingly anymore. Every click, every share, every like must be, whether you like it or not, a conscious choice.
A couple of years ago, I noticed that the products I had looked at on shopping sites were showing up everywhere I went online. That is when I decided that I have to be more careful about my online presence. I am no expert, but I did a few things after some Googling:
1.I enable the “do not track” feature on my web browser –on my laptop and my phone.
2.My location is always turned to off on my phone
3.I deleted many of the third party apps from my Facebook.
4.I stopped sharing much on social media. I mostly share only my writing. The unexpected advantage of this has been richer conversations with people offline, as they do not already know what I’ve done, where I’ve gone and what I’ve eaten! And outside of my friends’ profiles, I use the like button sparingly.
Here are some articles that offer good guidelines for protecting oneself online:
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what can be done to protect oneself online, but it is a good beginning.
The ideal thing would be to get off social media altogether. But in today’s world that seems like an impossibility. And for all its negatives, there are many positive things and people that have come into my life because of Facebook and Twitter. What we can do, is to take steps to protect our data as much as possible, and remember that everything we see online may not be true. Making our online presence a conscious choice instead of a mindless activity may make all the difference between being able to see the truth and being manipulated.
Image via Unsplash