Unofficial Millennial-In-Chief Mark Zuckerberg appeared stony-faced and characteristically awkward under the spotlight on CNN last week as he answered to the fallout of a whistleblower’s story that the data of more than 50 million Facebook users had been compromised and perhaps used to influence the 2016 presidential election.
As he sheepishly explained how a personality quiz application on his social media network started it all, I marveled at how CNN Tech Correspondent Laurie Segall somehow managed not to roll her eyes with the rest of America.
I had to laugh. Of course, 300,000 people had signed away their information (and that of all their friends, and friends’ friends, and so on) just so some online application they knew nothing about could give some validation of their own sense of self. Of course. Because the rise of social media has coincided with two toxic trends: an insufferable need for instant validation or inclusion, and a corresponding willingness to throw privacy out the window to get it.
Just think about how many people in your Facebook feed, each day, post results of personality quizzes. Want to know which Harry Potter character you are? What your Myers-Briggs profile is? No problem. Just blithely check the box that allows a company you’ve never heard of access to everything you’ve ever posted on your Facebook page, like all those pictures of your kids, every place you’ve been in the past year, your political views, your e-mail address, what you ate for breakfast on February 9, 2011, and on and on. No big deal, right?
The thing about “free” applications, whether they are games on your smartphone or quiz apps on Facebook, is that they’re really not free. If you absentmindedly skip past the terms of agreement (as many of us do), you’re not even aware that you’re paying to play – but your currency isn’t actual money. It’s your data.
The lures used to convince people to sign over their personal data typically play into natural human instincts that drive behavior across social media: the need to fit in, to share common experiences, to connect with others. For example, if all your friends are suddenly using customized emojis that look like them, would you be tempted to download the app, too? I have to admit I fell for that one, until, days after installing it, a pop-up told me that I needed to download a special keyboard to use the emojis. The catch? The app developer would have access to everything I typed and sent in text messages. It would have been like willingly allowing a privately run version of the NSA access to my phone. I deleted the app.
As I wrote this, I decided to check out which apps have access to my data and discovered I had unwittingly allowed several quiz apps access to my Facebook profile information. Oops. Guess I’ll have to trade in my high horse for a miniature steed.
Obviously, it’s not just Millennials signing their information away to retailers, tech firms, advertisers and, apparently, politically motivated data research firms with ties to presidential campaigns (that’s a Cambridge Analytica reference for those of you who haven’t turned on the news in a week). But when you think about the rise of social media – of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. – which generation is always given the most credit (and criticism) for integrating those platforms into our lives?
As the first generation to come of age in the era of widespread Internet access, Millennials’ online behaviors have more than once been studied in relation to their feelings about data sharing and privacy.
A 2016 Gallup poll found that, while the majority (67%) of Millennials trust their primary bank to safeguard their personal data, far fewer trust basically every other kind of organization. For example: only one quarter of Millennials trusted cellphone platforms to safeguard their data, and just 19% said they trusted the federal government with their digital information.
However, the Gallup poll found that Millennials place more trust in companies to keep their information private than did older generations: 44% of Millennials said they trusted companies to keep their information private all or most of the time, while only 32% of Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers said the same.
An analysis of data privacy research by eMarketer, an international research firm, found that Millennials were far more comfortable than the general population with their phones tracking their habits, ranging from location to spending to physical activity. The company also found that Millennials were three times more likely than people aged 65 and older to share such personal information with their favorite retailers.
After the revelation that Facebook signed away the right to tens of millions of people’s data with little more than a promise that it would solely be used for academic research purposes, only for that data to be manipulated by a firm working for a presidential campaign, we have to be savvier.
If our data is being used as currency, we need to treat it as such. Think about it this way. Would you give Facebook all the money in your checking account so you can find out which Hogwarts house you belong to?
If the answer is yes, let me save you the time. You’re a squib.
And if you don’t know or care what that means, you’re probably one step ahead of the rest of us.