Face­book, you’re like a bad boyfriend and it’s about time we break up

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - EL­IZ­A­BETH RENZETTI eren­zetti@globe­and­mail.com

I hate to have to tell you this, Face­book, but you’re turn­ing into quite the creepy boyfriend.

At first, I thought you just wanted me to be happy, show­ing me joy­ful pic­tures of friends’ new books and ba­bies. You let me reach out to peo­ple who were griev­ing far away. I thought you liked me be­cause I once posted a pic­ture of a pea that looked like Ge­orge Burns. I thought we had shared goals. I was wrong.

The first hint of some­thing sus­pi­cious came when I tried to post a photo from my new phone, and you told me that I would have to give you ac­cess to all the photos on my phone. Um, no. I’m not let­ting you read my diary, ei­ther. Then you wanted me to “wave” to strangers, and to buy ads to at­tract vis­i­tors to the ghost town that is my au­thor’s page. Next thing I know, you’re go­ing to be ask­ing my col­leagues where I went af­ter work.

I be­gan to sus­pect that, like Mor­ris Townsend in the novel Wash­ing­ton Square, you did not love me for me, but for my fa­ther’s for­tune. Since my fa­ther didn’t have a for­tune, what you wanted, ob­vi­ously, were my eyes, which fuel my de­sires, which con­trol my wal­let.

When the ads ap­pear­ing on my page re­flected my search his­tory with ter­ri­fy­ing ac­cu­racy – Erase those dark cir­cles! Buy these Chelsea boots! – I re­al­ized I may have let a stalker into the house. And when you would never in­tro­duce me to the mys­te­ri­ous al­go­rithms you liked so much, I started to worry. I started to worry about all the other peo­ple you were dat­ing, and what you were telling them.

This week, for in­stance, I un­der­stood from the web­site ProPublica that those al­go­rithms ac­tu­ally al­lowed ad­ver­tis­ers to tar­get anti-Semites with their ads. Un­til ProPublica brought it to light, the world’s largest so­cial network en­abled ad­ver­tis­ers to di­rect their pitches to the news feeds of al­most 2,300 peo­ple who ex­pressed in­ter­est in the top­ics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews” or “His­tory of ‘why jews ruin the world.’ ” Yeah, that’s pro­foundly trou­bling. It’s not some­thing you men­tioned when we started dat­ing.

You also didn’t men­tion the Rus­sian troll farms buy­ing ad­ver­tis­ing dur­ing the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Don’t play in­no­cent – you know which troll farms! You told con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors about the $100,000 that Krem­lin-af­fil­i­ated Rus­sians spent buy­ing ads tar­geted at spe­cific de­mo­graph­ics, in vi­o­la­tion of your own poli­cies.

I didn’t lis­ten to the peo­ple who crit­i­cized you. They didn’t un­der­stand our love. I didn’t fol­low the lead of my Face­books hun­ning sib­lings, or the peo­ple who wor­ried about pri­vacy or the dis­sem­i­na­tion of coun­ter­feit news. I be­lieved you when you said you were in the busi­ness of con­nect­ing peo­ple. I gave away the milk away for free. Un­til, that is, the warn­ings be­came too loud and per­va­sive to ig­nore.

When every­one was shar­ing John Lanch­ester’s es­say about you in the Lon­don Re­view of Books, I clicked on the link. He wrote, “Face­book, in fact, is the big­gest sur­veil­lance-based en­ter­prise in the his­tory of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most in­tru­sive gov­ern­ment has ever known about its cit­i­zens. It’s amaz­ing that peo­ple haven’t re­ally un­der­stood this about the com­pany. …

“What Face­book does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your be­hav­iour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more com­plete dis­con­nect be­tween what a com­pany says it does – ‘con­nect’, ‘build com­mu­ni­ties’ – and the com­mer­cial re­al­ity.”

And then I read Tim Wu’s book The At­ten­tion Mer­chants, in which he com­pares Face­book users to “renters will­ingly mak­ing ex­ten­sive im­prove­ments to their land­lord’s prop­erty, even as they were made to look at ad­ver­tise­ments.” He says you’re in the busi­ness of “at­ten­tion ar­bi­trage.” I’m slowly be­gin­ning to un­der­stand what this means, and it was not in your dat­ing pro­file.

Can it all be true? It can’t be true. I thought you just wanted to see pic­tures of our kids on their first day of school. I thought the “like” but­ton was a friendly di­ver­sion, not a heat­seek­ing mis­sile aimed at my money and my vote.

At least that’s what I would have said a cou­ple of years ago, be­fore the Brexit ref­er­en­dum and the U.S. elec­tion. Now, every­one’s talk­ing about how you and your mi­cro-tar­geted ads and se­lec­tive news feeds are ac­tu­ally driv­ing peo­ple fur­ther apart, so­cially and po­lit­i­cally. The In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner in Bri­tain is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether politi­cians and ad­vo­cacy groups might have bro­ken Bri­tish laws in their min­ing of vot­ers’ data from you and other so­cial-me­dia plat­forms.

It’s not easy for me to tell you these things. And no, it’s not over for­ever. Maybe you’ll be­come slightly less creepy, and our re­la­tion­ship won’t re­sem­ble one of those movies re­leased around Hal­loween. Be­sides, you’ve got a dat­ing pool of two bil­lion peo­ple, so you and your al­go­rithms won’t be lonely.

I’m sure I’ll be back one day, when my kids do some­thing funny or I’ve got a book to flog. That’s just hu­man na­ture. In the mean­time, though, I think I should see other plat­forms.

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