Is it time to hit reset on our relationship status with social media?

1 Oct 2018

Image: MRo/Shutterstock

From the most powerful leaders and business executives to ordinary people, the runaway train of social media is making mugs out of all of us, writes John Kennedy.

On Friday (28 September), it emerged that Facebook had fallen victim to a hacker attack that saw 50m user accounts breached. There was further uncertainty about whether an additional 40m accounts may have been affected by the token harvesting attack. So, 90m people were affected one way or another.

The hackers effectively found weaknesses in the Facebook infrastructure and found a way to unlock tokens, enabling them to access other users’ accounts. Access tokens are basically the digital keys that allow you to access the social network on your favourite devices, such as smartphones, tablets and PCs, without having to log back in every time.

Facebook did the right thing by disclosing the breach as quickly as possible and said those 90m users out of its 2.2bn online population will have their access tokens reset and will have to log back in.

A never-ending story

It got me thinking, shouldn’t we all think about hitting the reset button on our relationship with social media in the face of these never-ending privacy debacles, scandals and public embarrassments? I don’t mean for people to stop using social media completely, I mean stop, take a deep breath, and reappraise our relationship with the medium and what it is doing to us.

Is social media really the key to our digital lives or do we need something else?

This morning (1 October), I wrote about how Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of electric car company Tesla, and the company itself both had to pay a fine of $20m to the SEC over tweets he published in August, claiming he planned to take the company private. The tweets, which many believe were inspired by Musk’s loathing of short-sellers of stocks, landed him in hot water and cost him the role of chair of the company.

These were the latest in a litany of bizarre tweets that were no doubt garnering the kind of negative publicity that would make Tesla’s biggest shareholders and investors wince. If anything, it is a salutary lesson in how the leadership of organisations, from the smallest team to the largest conglomerate, should think about behaving online.

Musk isn’t the only one. The world has become strangely accustomed to (or numbed by) the most bizarre and at times unintelligible tweets from US president Donald Trump, a person who ought to embody the dignity of holding the highest office of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Instead, he fails at that on Twitter in particular – and that’s not ‘fake news’ by any stretch of the imagination.

In recent weeks, Facebook and Twitter (Google demurred) had to run the gauntlet of probing US senators who were trying to get to the bottom of the state of foreign meddling on the internet. Now, Facebook must run the gauntlet of European data regulators who need to find out if the latest breach violated GDPR, the EU’s shiny new privacy legislation.

Not only that but, here in Ireland, where Facebook is a major employer of roughly 2,500 people, executives are due to be once again summoned before the Oireachtas committee to explain what happened. This drama will play out in other countries, too.

All of this occurred in the months following the Cambridge Analytica affair that saw 87m Facebook users potentially manipulated by a political agency to sway outcomes such as the Brexit ‘Leave’ vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the US.

Time to face up to the ugly truth about social media

And Facebook has its own internal problems, too. In recent weeks, the founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, resigned from the company to, in their own words, explore their curiosity and creativity again. This was quickly followed by reports of creative differences between the founders and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

This came on the heels of the departure last year of WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and more recently by his co-founder Jan Koum from the Facebook stable. In a quite revealing move, Acton earlier this year endorsed the #DeleteFacebook campaign that came in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. A recent interview with Acton in Forbes revealed that he forewent an $850m payday to stick to his principles on privacy, encryption and his suspicions around Facebook’s plans to monetise WhatsApp.

The internet as we know it – mostly now through the filter of a smartphone screen – is at a dangerous juncture. Companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google hold more power and sway over our lives, to such an extent that if had we been asked to grant such permission a decade ago, we would have outright refused. But there it is.

The ‘ugly truth’ memo that highlighted the grow-at-any-cost culture at Facebook revealed what is probably driving Zuckerberg and his COO Sheryl Sandberg to “move fast and break things”. Shareholders and investors are even balking at the speed at which things are becoming undone.

The question is, how much further can Facebook grow? It has 2.2bn users out of the world’s current 7.6bn-strong population.

Two weeks ago in Dublin, I met with the head of Google’s global ads business, Sridhar Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy, a thoughtful and polite interviewee, and arguably one of the most powerful people on the internet, was quite candid in his feelings that trust is the biggest issue facing the web as we know it.

People are tired. They are tired of people embarrassing themselves and those who should know better undermining the offices they represent through tweets and posts. They are tired of being told they have been manipulated. They are in dread of the next privacy scandal. They did not sign up to become victims. As Ramaswamy pointed out, people are voting with their feet and are tearing at the fabric of the digital economy by installing ad blockers, for example.

And people are switching off. The Pew Research Center in the US has reported that the percentage of US adults using the internet (89pc) and social media (69pc) has plateaued and remains nearly unchanged since 2016.

Whether we like to admit it or not, Facebook and Google have become a duopoly in the online economy, with Amazon catching up fast. The digital world has become a part of our own personal nervous systems. Our digital DNA, so to speak. The miracles of what social media enables – including instant communication with potentially anyone on the planet –  is belied by polarisation alongside left- or right-wing politics.

If the custodians of the very networks upon which we have built our digital lives are more focused on growth than on progressing civilisation, then it is time to hit reset on our relationship status with these companies.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years