Social media, a communications revolution that brought friends and family members closer together, is also tearing apart concepts of privacy and trust.
In a history museum where the past is the main focus, dozens of people came together to talk about how to keep Facebook and other social platforms from careening out of control in the future.
The News & Observer’s Community Voices series took a topic out of the headlines in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data mining controversy with a forum on Wednesday night titled "Social Media and the Surrender of Privacy."
“Tonight we will discuss how users are being used,” said Ned Barnett, associate opinion editor at The N&O. “What are the risks and what should be the regulations and personal precautions. But we will also discuss the virtue and value of social media when it’s properly used and clearly understood.”
The consensus of the panelists — a lawyer, two professors and a digital advertising expert — was that social media companies are abusing privacy rights to a point that is bringing a backlash.
Amid this reckoning, the panelists said, those companies might face new regulations or face pressures from advertisers and customers to be more transparent about how they use their personal data, as well as better safeguard it from data breaches.
Catherine Lawson, a lawyer, self-described millennial and panel member, said she came of age as Facebook, Twitter and other social media came of age.
As an attorney who practices intellectual property law and a Twitter user who saw her #MeAt14 tweet criticizing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore go viral, she said the social media revolution is similar to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a time of monopolies, “pollution, robber barons, children working in factories.”
Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has written about Google, Facebook and Twitter, said companies mining your personal data is nothing new.
Though people are aware that what they provide to social media companies is being used to track trends and solicit advertising, “that data goes far beyond what we think we are giving,”
Paul Jones, a professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, said it’s not just that the companies are using the data for advertising or marketing. He said the companies are woefully inadequate in protection of private data and relayed his experience of having his financial information hacked.
In a digital age, Jones said, “data stewardship is the real problem.”
Evan Carroll, a digital marketing expert based in the Triangle and a former student of Jones, said advertisers are not necessarily the bad guys in this revolution.
Targeted ads, Carroll said, can be helpful to companies and consumers.
“You’re the product of Facebook,” Carroll said, “but there’s a line that needs to be drawn.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, the panelists discussed solutions and possible next steps.
Data breaches and malignant manipulation should bring real consequences, the panelists agreed.
Napoli said control won’t come from any one place. It will be a combination of advertisers, regulations, perhaps even a new regulatory agency.
Lawson added that the responsibility for keeping social media safe and trustworthy also falls on the consumer, especially when it comes to questions about fake news and its impact on the social and political fabric.
“We need to be smarter consumers,” Lawson said.
The panel was optimistic that after a few years of adjustment, there will be a rebalance between social companies and their users.
“I think we really did bottom out,” Napoli said. “We recognize the fallibilities now.”