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Facebook and the Stewardship of Trust

By Glynn Young, APR, Fellow PRSA, Co-Chair, Communications, PRSA St. Louis  

We all knew, deep down, that Facebook was not so much a social media company as it was a data collection and sales company. We knew that we weren’t really getting all those posts and videos and quizzes and grumpy cat photos and puppy videos for free. We probably knew that every like and love and emoji was being collected. We suspected something was up when we would look at a book on Amazon, and the next time we opened Facebook, there was the book as an ad or promoted post. 

The fact that Facebook sold our data was not a surprise. What was a surprise was that a buyer of that data resold it, or packaging it up and using it to try to influence us and influence elections. A different form of this had happened in the 2012 election, but it was an app you downloaded (and gave your Facebook information away to, whether or not you read the fine print). 

Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been experiencing few days of peace. It’s gone through Russians buying ads, fake news proliferation, and fake Facebook groups and accounts. And now it’s the sale of user data and even the saving of extensive records of calls and texts on Android phones. Pack journalism loves this kind of ongoing blood in the water, and the media coverage has been relentless. 

PRSA National Chair Anthony D’Angelo, watching Facebook’s initial and ongoing stumbles, was prompted to publish a letter with common-sense suggestions on how to deal with a crisis like this. It’s become almost painful to watch – a train wreck at social media speed. 

Ethan Zuckerman rightfully pointed out that this problem of selling data and privacy is bigger than Facebook. Google, Amazon, and others use your data as well. Doc Searls believes the problem is an iceberg, with only Facebook showing above the water line at the moment. What’s below the water line? Would you believe The New York Times and every other online publisher that sells ads? 

Digital technology makes this kind of data collection easy. Our resistance to paying for anything, or very little, online provides the necessity for the business model. Of course, how much of what we see on Facebook would we really want to pay for? 

As PRSA’s D’Angelo suggests, trust has been blown here. It’s Facebook’s problem today, but it’s the entire digital industry’s problem tomorrow. We have a PRSA Code of Ethics to follow, and one of its intent’s is “To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.” To me, that says we must go well beyond dense six-point type written by lawyers that goes on for page after page after page. 

But the responsibility also goes well beyond digital advertisers and data collectors. We’re all digital citizens now, and we have rights and we have responsibilities. That includes managing our own data, being smart (and stingy) about whom we share it with, and keeping a watchful eye on how it’s used. Read the PRSA Code of Ethics. Check your settings for Apps and Ads on your social media pages. Delete and restrict as appropriate. Be a good steward of your data and the people you work with and for.

Photograph by Alexander Hafemann via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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