Ethical Debates in Connected Culture 2019/Privacy 1: The Private Sphere


How is social media affecting the private sphere?Edit

Facebook has been scrutinised for its questionable security of user privacy

A new digital era has emerged, whereby digital technologies have transformed the way we communicate, interact and think as individuals and as a society. [1] According to Zizi Papacharissi, digital technologies have created a 'virtual sphere' melting geographical boundaries and political constraints, and that the high potential of these digital platforms has questioned the traditional meanings of a private sphere and a public sphere. The private and public boundaries have now become blurred, as digital media users now are publishing their private life into these public digital media platforms - thus, creating a new 'virtual world'. [2]

With technological innovations, users online are able to interact with other people, create, redistribute or exchange information and opinions, and also express themselves in virtual communities. All these means of interaction, along with the exchange of user-generated content, are referred to as 'social media'. [3] With the enjoyment of using social media for many prolific reasons, come some challenges as well, especially use and misuse of private information. Thus, in this chapter we will provide information and research on the individual self on social media and explore whether private information is actually private.

The rise of social media platforms and the number of users has also impacted politics, it has changed the way campaigns are designed and run and how individuals interact with relevant political actors and consume political information. Social media has created a cost-effective and data-rich platform for political actors to monitor and influence their citizens, through having the ability to gather user data and create targeted messaging and reach millions of citizens simultaneously, having a great impact on their ultimate decisions. Political actors are now able to create their own social media pages and build their images to the wider public, sharing their political ideologies and views, undermining the people's democracies. Simultaneously, users now have a platform to voice their own political beliefs to engage more and more with the political process and connect with like-minded users from all around the world. According to author Langdon Winner, social network sites revitalise democratic society, enabling citizens to command the political and economic resources needed to become effectively self-governing. [4] However, although social media provides a public space for people to voice their opinions and beliefs, political parties may manipulate such opinions through targeted advertisements served specifically to sway the people’s beliefs. Therefore, this gives rise to the question: What if our political opinions are not really our own?

The following chapter will focus on the different effects of social media on the private sphere. Using the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a case study, we will be looking at how social media, namely Facebook, affects the private sphere at an individual level and at a political level to address these concerns.

Main DiscussionEdit

The Private LifeEdit

Is our private information private?Edit

Nowadays it is not about on and off. We live in a world where being networked to people and information wherever and whenever you need it is just assumed. [5] Even if we are not physically online or surfing on the Internet, we are always connected to the network, and that is what it means to be always-on. This concept of always-on is influencing the private sphere on social media. We receive information through social media constantly every single day. For example, messages from your friends and family, important milestones, political debates, or catastrophic events from around the world. People react to these pieces of information and a lot of them tend to overshare their opinions and thoughts. Each time you post on social media, you reveal a little bit more about yourself, who you are what you like, or maybe even where you live. Because of all of this, the line between the public sphere and the private sphere is very thin, almost see-through. Recently, Facebook gave people the option to make their profile and information more private with better and stronger privacy settings. However, the extent to which users are able to change their settings so that they reflect their preferences arguably also depends on their level of skill in understanding and modifying the relevant settings. [6] danah boyd and Eszter Hargittai found that it may appear that all is fine regarding related issues on Facebook since many young adult users are actively managing their profile’s public access. [6] However, they don't know to which extent the users understand the implemented changes or if it matches their preferences.

After reading boyd, Turkle and Pariser’s work, there is clear evidence that users on social media have a false sense of the security of their private information. People usually have the feeling of anonymity and lack of social responsibility that often develops from using text-centred telecommunications, and ends with oversharing on social media. The information then can be used by people you don't know, for example, for identity theft or stalking.

Anxiety is part of the new connectivity. [7] Many people have a fear of missing out and can't put their phone or computer down and stop scrolling through social media. Many people, however, also have anxiety over their privacy. Technology and anxieties are very closely related. Technology helps us manage life stress but generates anxieties of its own. [7] Sherry Turkle interviews many young people who explain their anxieties and fears over social media. They explain how all the things they say on social media are recorded and stay on the Internet, how careful they must be and how they write personal information to a diary rather than talking about it with friends on social media.

How is data being used/misused?Edit

The web we navigate navigates us. For example, Google tracks our searches, engineering personalised results, which are tailored to our supposed needs. Facebook aggregates our likes, login times, and other metrics to target advertisements. Amazon has built a digital empire on its alchemy of stored consumer behaviour, purchase correlation research, and predictive marketing. [8] Since the information we receive, especially on social media, is tailored in a way that validates our beliefs and opinions, can we say that our opinions are really our own? A lot of personal information is mishandled behind our browser's digital veil. The matrix of engineers, market demographers, and data aggregators are contracted third parties to our trusted hosts; they are not contractually bound to the same privacy standards that Facebook consented to in 2010. [8] The ubiquity of data gathering on social media platforms is aimed at personalising experiences and optimising sales, ultimately affecting our culture in shaping the global economy, the flow of ideas, and access to information.

A useful example of the misuse of information on social media is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica collected individual data from Facebook and developed the ability to micro-target individual consumers or voters with messages most likely to influence their behaviour. [9] This micro-targeting was used to sway votes during Donald Trump’s electoral campaign. Thus the following question is raised: Were those Trump supporters actually true supporters? Or were their opinions 'encoded' in their heads? Privacy has well served our modern notions of intimacy and democracy. Without privacy, the borders of intimacy blur. [7]

The Political LifeEdit

Social media as a tool for political actorsEdit
Donald Trump

As mentioned earlier, some of the main impacts of social media on politics is the ability of these political actors to collect the data of their citizens, including demographics, browsing activities and previous voting or political engagement activities. In this way, they identify their targeted audiences and create targeted messaging to directly engage with the citizens and broadcast political messages to the masses simultaneously.

Thus far, data collection is one of the most prevalent uses of social media by political actors for their benefit, whereby user data and behaviour trends are monitored and collected by all the big technology giants that individuals widely use online, these include Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to name a few. User data is categorised into specific groups in relation to demographics, psychographics, political beliefs and so on, which then in return is used by political actors to design their campaigns accordingly. One of the most recent examples of this phenomenon is the not so long ago scandal of Cambridge Analytica and Donald Trump's campaign victory, which will be elaborated in more detail in the following section of this chapter.

Social media as a tool for the publicEdit
#MeToo social movement protest

Not only did the rise of social media platforms impact the success of political actors, but it also provided an effective tool for individuals to create political change and influence the political decisions of their followers and create social change across the world. According to independent educational UK charity Demos, in 2018, nearly two-thirds of young people (64%) see social media platforms as an essential part of achieving social change, and over half of 35-50 year olds agree (55%). [10] Social media has made it easier for users to engage with politics and social issues, as it has provided a platform to practice their freedom of speech and in most cases catalyse social change and at most times change the course of history.

Over the years, we have witnessed social change around the world through the power of the people and social media platforms. A new wave of online activists emerged and facilitated social movements and political awareness. Some of the most prevalent examples of social change catalysed by social media platforms include the Arab Spring, which was a series of anti-government protests that took place in the early 2010s around the Middle East. Another example includes the #MeToo social movement, sparked in 2006, on social media against sexual harassment and sexual assault which has gained global momentum in recent years. The decentralised nature of social movements on social media has made them very effective in terms of wide accessibility and the power to share messages and reach wider audiences all over the world, facilitating transnational communication and mobilising global action. Furthermore, social media also empowers users to urge new activations in a horizontal civic space in comparison to the constraints of traditional means. [11]. Thus, we may look at social media in both a positive and negative light in relation to democracy and politics. Yet, in relation the the private sphere, social media gives rise to serious privacy concerns as mentioned earlier and shall be explored in further detail below.

Case Study: The Cambridge Analytica ScandalEdit

Who was Cambridge Analytica?Edit

According to its former website, Cambridge Analytica sold itself as a political consulting firm for electoral campaigns. The company would source relevant online data to create key messages designed to target specific audiences with the goal of influencing their attitudes and behaviours to win votes, appealing to the client’s demands. Cambridge Analytica’s questionable services raised alarms in early 2018, when it was discovered that the little-known consulting firm covertly collected personal data from more than 50 million Facebook user profiles which they used to influence and manipulate target groups through specially designed advertisements. [12] Subsequently, Facebook’s data practices were also heavily attacked. [13] [14]

What went wrong?Edit

Christopher Wylie at a Cambridge Analytica protest

In March of 2018, the New York Times and The Observer published candid interviews with a whistle-blower named Christopher Wylie. The former director of research at Cambridge Analytica detailed the firm’s data mining practices, including the mass harvesting of millions of Facebook user profiles. Wylie also leaked information relating to Donald Trump’s electoral campaign, saying that the company played a key role in manipulating Facebook users into voting for the presidential candidate. [15] Through Trump's victory, Cambridge Analytica’s efforts were successful. [16]

Cambridge Analytica harvested personal data from over 50 million Facebook users through a specially built app. [13] [17] [12] Normally, when an app user gives consent to the collection of personal data, the app will only collect the information of that one user. However, it was revealed that this particular app collected the personal information of the user and their Facebook friends without them knowing. More than 270,000 individual people used the app. Facebook received enormous criticism for this, facing major questions surrounding the misuse of personal data. [18] [19] Cambridge Analytica then used this enormous pool of data to target potential Trump voters through the use of persuadable advertisements, using tailored creative content to send their messages across. [13]

The after-mathEdit

The Cambridge Analytica scandal sparked serious concerns amongst millions of Facebook users. People became increasingly sceptical of the ways in which their personal information was being collected and given away. [19] More than a year later, the scale of the issue has not diminished. The repercussions of the scandal have given rise to questions relating to online privacy, as well as questions relating to control of information.

Discussion and ConclusionsEdit

Social media and the private lifeEdit

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

According to published literature, as social network sites mature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to treat the public and private spheres as separate. This is because the line between the two spheres is largely unclear. [20] [21] Literature asserts that there was a time in which the public and private sphere were easily distinguishable, and therefore considered to be dichotomous. However, as a result of social network sites, the boundaries between the public and private spheres are blurred. [22] [23] [24] [25] This relates heavily to the notion of always-on, as identified earlier.

According to boyd, [5] being always-on is not just about consumption and production of content but also about creating an ecosystem in which people can stay peripherally connected to one another through a variety of micro-data. It’s about creating networks and layering information on top. Thus, each time we carry out an action online, including every click, like, tag, message and more, we hand-over personal information about ourselves to the organisations that run such platforms, thereby blurring the line between the public and private sphere even further. In addition, as outlined earlier, Turkle [7] identifies anxiety as part of the new connectivity, which is a result of the looming uncertainty felt surrounding the security and privacy of personal information online. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates such anxieties: People reacted by deleting their Facebook accounts as a form of protest through the #DeleteFacebook campaign. [26] [27] It voiced the worldwide concerns of a public who felt that digital environments have become more involved with financial goals rather than the privacy and care of their users.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg announced a series of changes intended to make Facebook a more secure and private platform. However, no matter how many new privacy features the social media giant introduces, user information still remains highly valuable to such organisations. [8] According to Opsahl, when Facebook started it was a private space for communication with a group of your choice. Soon, it transformed into a platform where much of your information is public by default. Today, it has become a platform where you have no choice but to make certain information public, and this public information may be shared by Facebook with its partner websites and used to target ads. [28] In this way, the user becomes to product, not the customer, [29] whereby users seem to be airing much of their ‘private’ lives in the ‘public’ realm. [25] This is how Facebook and other social network sites are able to provide a free service: they collect user information which is then used by advertisers to run targeted and personalised campaigns. [8]

Social media and the political lifeEdit

It is evident that social media could be used as a tool by both political parties and individuals to both undermine and empower democracy. According to Tucker et al., social media have often been described as the site for conflict between 'good' democratic forces who use social media to make their voices heard and 'bad' autocratic and repressive forces who aim to censor this channel to silence these liberal elements. [30]

However, the rise of personalisation raises many concerns relating to politics in the private sphere. Pariser states that the more personalised the content we receive becomes, the less democratic our society becomes. [8] According to Wetherell, the right to vote comes with a right to a unique political opinion. [31] The personalisation of online content takes that away from us, as was the case with Cambridge Analytica during Donald Trump’s electoral campaign.

According to Dahlgren, in a democracy, individuals may interact with one another and communicate their interests freely, including their political stance. [32] This definition assumes that our political interests and opinions are formed through an unrestricted flow of information. Yet, the Cambridge Analytica scandal prompts the following question: What if our political opinions are not really our own?

According to Pariser, democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. [8] In response to the ever-increasing flow of information in today’s digital world, information is no longer a “pull” phenomenon but a “push” one. We don’t go to it, it comes to us. [33] In other words, it is media organisations, such as Facebook and Google, that determine the kind of content we are exposed to as users through the personalisation of content. As a result, these platforms create a unique world of information for each of us. This is what Pariser refers to as the filter bubble:[8] an online world in which users are exposed to other people who are similar to themselves, and content that reinforces their existing interests. In this way, the filter bubble can be used describe the effects personalisation of content is having on democracy within our society as it fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information. [8]

This is exactly why the news surrounding Cambridge Analytica quickly became a scandal: because the political consulting company used the data it harvested from millions of Facebook users to serve political advertisements that would benefit the Trump electoral campaign, either by reinforcing users’ political opinions, or steering them to start thinking differently. Thus, the information being served to these users was filtered in a way that would ultimately manipulate their vote. Therefore, it can be argued that the collection of data in today’s world may result in major social consequences, giving rise to ethical considerations surrounding the privacy of our personal data and our right to a free opinion.


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