We must teach teens to ask questions of social platforms

The on-going revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s doings has made me wonder how much attention teens are paying to what it all really means for them. When I asked my teen what she thought of it all when the revelations broke, she was non-plussed. What revelations?

And whilst we’ve seen myriad news and think pieces about the issues, how much of it is aimed at the heaviest users of social media – young people? Not much, I suspect.

We’ve seen old white men addressing Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Congress in the US last week showing just how much they don’t get about the platform and how it works. There’s been a discussion about “Facebook embeds”  (Facebook staff embedded in political campaign teams to help them optimise their strategies) which has huge implications for how the electorate in everything from the US election to the EU Referendum may have been manipulated. There has also been many accounts from people who’ve managed to download the umpteen gigabytes of data from their Facebook and Google accounts revealing just how much is tracked and kept – every link we click on, every map we search, every email… including news that mobile phone text messages had been scraped from Facebook user’s data (why was Facebook holding that data anyway??).

“The covert nature of persuasion on the social web means that effective marketing is no longer something you can see or even perceive, but something which through a thousand “touch points” might subtly change your behaviour without your noticing.” Emily Bell, The Guardian, 16 April 2018

My teen is of voting age. How many of them (and us) have been fed unscrupulous political ads from dubious “news” pages on Facebook and the like? How much personal information are our teens giving away from their ubiquitous use of social media? And more importantly, how much do they understand about the exchange of a “free” service for their data? Who has the power here?

Facebook seems to be cleaning up its act in a hurry. Their share price tanked in recent weeks (though it rose again after Zuckerberg’s Congress appearance). New European data privacy laws mean that they have to act in any case. It’s good to see they’ve drafted clearer terms and conditions (hands up who’s read any social platform’s T&Cs? Would your 13 year old understand them?) and last October they announced they were launching a public archive of political adverts  so we can all see (presuming we’re interested enough to go look) who’s behind what.

Let’s not forget that there are some brilliant people doing amazing work by using social media platforms to bring communities together. But we also need to teach our kids (and perhaps ourselves) to be sceptical and inquisitive about these platforms, to ask the questions about who owns what and what we’re exchanging for a so-called “free” service. We’ve put this one high up on the Brighton5 to do list. Watch this space.


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