Facebook is hardly the only threat to our online privacy

We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about how Facebook is vacuuming up enormous amounts of personal data from its two billion users and selling that information to advertisers who target ever-more precise demographic and geographic groups.

A friend who knows a lot about social media warned me the other day: “FYI ‒ if you haven’t seen much about it yet, watch for stories about how the Facebook privacy issues are going to pale in comparison to what Google is tracking.

“Looks like it is far more data and somehow (it) can even track you if you don’t use Google products, which is exceedingly scary.”

We are living in a daunting new world, indeed, when it comes to privacy. The core of the criticism of the technology companies is this: In the old days, data pertaining to individuals were theirs alone, not anyone else’s. That’s what privacy used to mean.

But today technology companies can grab anybody’s personal data and convert it into an impersonal commodity to be sold and marketed for corporate profit.

Lurking behind this market dynamic is an argument that has raged for many years: How should technology companies like Facebook, Reddit and Google be defined?

Are they publishers or are they merely aggregators?

If they are publishers, consider the business model set by old-fashioned newspapers which took responsibility for the accuracy, community value and good taste of news items they published.

To exercise this responsibility, they hired reporters and editors to check whether the facts behind news stories were accurately set out and that their stories were balanced and not propaganda. Those folks were dismissively called “gatekeepers,” and often reviled as busybody elitists for meticulously trying to be accurate and fair.

But are tech companies instead are essentially aggregators, sweeping up already-published reporting from news sources and pasting it together without taking responsibility for accuracy?

If so, they are merely another distribution platform.

The difference is important, because there are economic and legal penalties visited on publishing companies that violate the responsibility for accuracy. Biased newspapers can be sued for libel (expensive) and those that get the reputation of being either biased or inaccurate will find their readership (and profit margins) declining.

Publishers traditionally spend a lot on fact-checking, which usually involves hiring reporters to sniff around to make sure news items are accurate. But because aggregators don’t claim the material they distribute is accurate, they can pass off the task of deciding “what’s news” into a mathematical model, an algorithm that measures whatever content wins the most eyeballs.

That then winds up at the top of the page.

Guess what: It did not take long for tech companies to discover it’s a lot cheaper to make editorial decisions by algorithm software than by a bunch of (relatively) expensive editors and reporters.

So, not surprisingly, the tech industry for years argued fiercely that it had nothing in common with publishing. The economics of the argument introduced another dimension. To an algorithm, the content of a post or nature of an idea is irrelevant.

Accuracy or fair-mindedness are also not considered; it is all  merely a matter of measuring public engagement, which can be done simply by adding up eyeballs. The item that draws the most eyeballs is the one that gets the most reader interest and, therefore, the one that is most valuable as a commercial commodity.

These social media dynamics have resulted in at least two consequences ‒ both of them bad:

1)   A fake news post on social media looks and feels a lot like a real news item, i.e. one that accurately portrays an actual event.

When an essential part of the job of publishers was to distinguish between fact and falsehood, something enforced by fact-checkers and gatekeepers, readers approached their publications with the presumption that materials so presented were accurate.

But social media posts, whose “validity” is determined largely by a computer measurement of how many people are looking at something, can be either true or false.

The average reader may well not be able to determine the truth or falsehood of any given item. That’s what gatekeepers did in the old days, and the false items weren’t published. Now, they too often are.

Hence, the term “fake news.”

2)   Human nature tends to urge us to cluster with other people who are like us. Fair and natural enough.

But this tendency also clusters people into their own bubble of shared attitudes, biases and prejudices. Once there, it’s hard for most people to push themselves to break out of their own little bubble, regardless of the facts.

This is why historian Timothy Snyder’s words ring so scary: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”  

Sad to say, it seems that the rise of social media as the dominant information medium worldwide is largely responsible for the rise of the purest “fake news.”

Not to be confused, however, with politicians who often use “fake news” to mean any story they don’t like, often because the story is true.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Don S
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 12:15pm

The more worrisome issue for not only social media accumulators like Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc, but supposed news publishers, such as Bridge, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, etc, is censorship.

And specifically censorship of conservative voices and ideas.

I am banned from posting on the News, Free Press, Click on Detroit, and each of my posts on this site have to be "qued for review".

And I have never heard the reason. None of these sites will communicate with me when I ask.

But they don't have to give me the reason, I know it's because I express a conservative viewpoint, and I'm unabashed about doing so.

So, I'm censored, as are other conservative voices, news outlets, websites, etc.

Of course, this site, as with the others, all maintain the position that theirs are private sites, and they can limit posters in any manner they want to.

But it's extremely hypocritical to limit speech when a news site supposedly supports the 1st amendment.

AJ Jones
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 1:26pm

Hi Don

Nearly all comments are flagged for review on Bridge for the simple reason that we get a lot of spam and we do our best to keep it off the site. We aren't always able to approve comments as quickly as we'd like, but they do eventually get published. Taking a quick look over the past few weeks, I see comments from "Don S" on a number of stories:

But if you feel like there was a specific comment you wanted to leave and it wasn't published, please shoot me an email and I'd be happy to take a look (ajones@thecenterformichigan.net).

Thanks for reading.


Don S
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 2:11pm

Thanks for at least taking the time to reply AJ.

It's a courtesy I've never received from the other publications.

I'm aware that I've had my comments posted in Bridge.

I don't remember a specific comment of mine that was not posted. But I'll let you know if that occurs.