Who's tracking you? A N&O forum will explore social media and the loss of privacy

Have you quit Facebook yet?

Many have considered it after reports of how extensively political consultants and marketers have harvested users' personal data to influence votes and target ads. But with 2 billion monthly users, Facebook may be both too big and too ingrained to fail.

Nonetheless, users want Facebook to change the way it handles their personal information. Their worries about data leaks led to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg being called before Congress last week to explain how his company will better protect its users' privacy.

New controls are needed, but the fault ultimately doesn't lie with Zuckerberg or his ever-morphing creation. Social media and its users are stumbling together through an online realm where privacy is both willingly and unwittingly surrendered. That has created a strange and still-forming landscape for social interaction — a world we've never known because now so much can be known about so many.

Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies the impact of social media on society. She describes Facebook as "a surveillance machine" that "will inevitably be misused."

That machine gathers users' personal data without their direct consent and sells it to marketers. And it can be a stunning amount of data. Brian Chen, who covers technology for The New York Times, recently wrote a column headlined: "I downloaded the information that Facebook has on me. Yikes."

Chen wrote: "When I opened my file, it was like opening Pandora’s box. With a few clicks, I learned that about 500 advertisers ... had my contact information, which could include my email address, phone number and full name. Facebook also had my entire phone book, including the number to ring my apartment buzzer."

Others see online tracking as a reality that users implicitly accept in return for free access to social media services.

The News & Observer's next Community Voices forum will explore the hazards of being tracked and exposed in this online world in a forum titled: "Social media and the surrender of privacy." The event will be held at 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 25, at the North Carolina Museum of History. Admission is free, but please register in advance at Eventbrite.com.

A panel of four will discuss social media and privacy issues followed by 30 minutes of questions from the audience. The panelists are a mix of people who use, study or profit from social media. They are:

Paul Jones: A professor in the UNC School of Information and Library Science, Jones is a computer scientist with an MFA in poetry. He understands the technical and emotional side of the digital era and recently experienced its hazards. His personal information was hacked from the credit reporting agency Equifax and it was scraped from Facebook by the firm voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica. Jones is proof that online protections can be so loose even a digital information expert can fall prey to hackers and scrapers.

Philip Napoli: A professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, Napoli is an expert on media regulation and policy. He is the author of three books, including "Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences." Napoli has written that while companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter insist they are technology companies, they have evolved into media companies — but without the regulatory, legal and ethical standards that apply to traditional media companies.

Evan Carroll: A Triangle-based expert in digital marketing, Carroll advises companies on how to use technology, data and analytics to drive customer loyalty. A leader in digital legacy and personal archiving, he is also co-author of the book, Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy?

Catherine Lawson: An attorney with the Raleigh office of Parker Poe law firm, Lawson's work includes protecting intellectual property. She also has had the experience of seeing her Twitter post go viral and become the "#MeAt14" trend. She tweeted a photo of herself at 14 to illustrate how young was the girl Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore allegedly had a sexual encounter with when he was 32. Women around the nation flooded Twitter with photos of themselves at 14.

If you're using social media, or even if you're trying to avoid it, the April 25 forum promises to be a compelling discussion about what we've gained — and what we've given up — in using digital tools to connect. Hope you can join us.

Barnett: 919-829-4512