Reasons for Re-Joining & Why I Use a VPN for FB

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I re-joined Facebook yesterday, and I want to take a moment to comment on the reasons like how I am using the site for research, and also what I do to login to the site.

Reasons for Re-Joining

About a week ago, I was encouraged to re-join Facebook as I embark on the job market this fall in my discipline of rhetoric and writing/composition because people do post information about jobs, universities, departments, etc on Facebook and that I would miss out on opportunities to learn more about these elements by not being on the site.

However, as a digital surveillance/algorithm/rhetorics researcher, I left Facebook over a year ago because of the algorithmic surveillance happening in that space, and I even wrote an article outlining my concerns, which appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy. Re-joining the space gave me considerable pause.

After talking with a dear friend and colleague about my concerns, she suggested I approach my time with Facebook as a site of research and this helped me evaluate the benefits and constraints of re-joining differently.

How I am Using the Site for Research

In addition to blogging about my experiences with re-joining and interacting in Facebook, I will be intentionally playing with the data I input into the site. Here are some parameters that I’ve set:

1. While there are untagged images of me in the Facebook ecosystem, I have decided I will not post or allow my face to be tagged in Facebook because of Facebook’s facial recognition research program, DeepFace. Yes, I am aware that images of me appear on Twitter and on other sites, including Google’s image search.

For now, I do not want to participate in Facebook’s DeepFace project or I want to limit my involvement as much as possible.

2. Since Facebook’s “like” feature has not only legal, commercial, and privacy implications, I will not use the “like” feature in Facebook. Besides, it is just another way to contribute data for Facebook to offer personalization through their algorithms.

3. I will not be adding any interests because Facebook uses that data for personalization.

4, I have intentionally provided a bogus birth date. I really didn’t want to provide a birth date at all, but Facebook mandated that I provide one to have a better age experience. So, I chose a year out of my demographic range to learn what advertisements Facebook would serve me for that age range.

5. I will be “hiding” items from my timeline such as friend acceptances, and other items that I haven’t encountered yet, but once I do, I will write about what I hide to be transparent.

6. Since I am not approaching the research from a human subjects perspective, I will not (at this time) be including participants. If I do happen to make mention in my blog about an interaction (from my perspective), I will keep details of the person’s identity anonymous, and also not use direct quotes or information that may aid in uncovering the identity of the person.

7. I will also be playing with different features on the site, like changing my demographic information and viewing certain pages more than others to see what appears more often in my newsfeed.

What I do to Login

When logging into Facebook, I use a VPN. So far, I’ve logged into locations in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Each time I login, I notice different advertisements on my screen. For example, here’s the most recent ad I saw this morning:

Advertisement appearing on my Facebook feed.

Advertisement appearing on my Facebook feed.

This personalized advertisement pulls from the following categories, my log data (I used a VPN to login to a site in Chicago) and the demographic information I added: Sex, “female,” and age, “40.”

Additional information I use to set up my Firefox browser include setting Firefox to privacy settings of “tell sites I don’t want to be tracked” and “Firefox will never remember my history.”

I also installed EFF’s Privacy Badger on Facebook to help block spying ads and invisible trackers.

As I continue interacting with the site, I will update the blog with more information.

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Flirting with Re-joining Facebook: Algorithmic Surveillance Awaits

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As I continue to flirt with the idea of re-joining Facebook, I am considering how while protecting my privacy. Sure, I’m concerned about identity theft, password hacks, and distribution of my images and words to other sites, but what I am most concerned about is how to protect my privacy from Facebook. Since Facebook has a history of loosening privacy on the site, (Fletcher, 2010; Goel, 2013; Manjoo, 2011; Vargas, 2010) I am not one to trust the basic privacy settings outlined on Facebook’s pages.

Why?

Like all Facebook users, I am subject to algorithmic surveillance–a term first used by Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong in their book, The Maximum Surveillance Society (1999), defined as surveillance systems that follow sequences. Broad, huh? Well, Lucas Introna and David Wood (2004) remarked elsewhere that researchers use the term in connection with surveillance and computer technologies that capture complex data about events, people, and systems. No stranger to algorithmic surveillance, Facebook uses complex (and proprietary) algorithms to filter content for users based on their activities within the site. And, recently, Facebook announced it will use browser web history to capture more data for advertising revenue (currently, users can opt-out of this practice).

While Facebook uses data for advertising revenue, compliance with federal requests, and for research (among other activities defined in the data and use policy) the question remains is the benefit of social networking worth the cost of sharing our information? Given that Facebook uses data to manipulate the ways we experience information on our screens, it may not be after all.

Let’s think about this another way. Earlier this year, commentators, citizens, academics, and journalists issued concern over the emotional contagion research conducted in 2012. The researchers of the study performed algorithmic manipulation in a concentrated study to learn if the emotions of users could change based on what the users experienced in the Facebook ecosystem. Setting aside commentary on the ethics and legality of the study, what’s engaging about the fracas springs from acknowledgement of purposeful manipulation of the emotions of users by particular people, at a particular time, and in a particular context. In print, there was proof that Facebook had the ability to shape content to affect people’s lives. People reacted to what they thought and felt was wrong. There were names, faces, and decisions–all made by people. But, the algorithms Facebook uses still manipulates people, their emotions, and the information in their feeds. Do we feel more comfortable pointing the finger at people and excusing the unknown variables of the algorithms?

I do not necessarily have an answer to that question, but in further reflection, consider the recent controversy over Facebook’s algorithms. The political and social outpouring on Twitter since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the near domination of the ice bucket challenge on Facebook illustrates algorithmic manipulation. John McDermott just yesterday argued the implications of this algorithmic disparity are considerable given the reliance of the site to provide information to millions. He argued, “The implications of this disconnect are huge for readers and publishers considering Facebook’s recent emergence as a major traffic referrer. Namely, relying too heavily on Facebook’s algorithmic content streams can result in de facto censorship. Readers are deprived a say in what they get to see, whereas anything goes on Twitter” (2014, para. 3).

Censorship isn’t the only issue with Facebook’s algorithms, however. Ideological concerns over what political, social, and cultural events, ideas, and information play out in algorithmic culture and especially on Facebook. The Facebook ALS/Twitter Ferguson story illustrates this concern quite well. While the social media company continues to use algorithms that hide news stories, events, posts, images, and videos from users, algorithmic manipulation will continue to happen every time someone logs on to the site.

So, what does algorithmic manipulation have to do with protecting privacy and data from Facebook? Well, the more content a user shares with the site either voluntary or through web browsing histories, cookies, and/or widget data, the more data the algorithms have to manipulate what the user experiences in the space. It’s kinda tricky, right?

As I continue to think about re-joining Facebook, I know that some first steps will be to use a VPN to access the site, have a clean browser history and a private window. But, I also know that I will have to put the basics on the page I create–enough for people to recognize me professionally. And, of course, I won’t be able to “like” anything or share any interests. I am also not sure if this will be enough. So, if anyone out there has any suggestions or resources, please email me or send a comment.

 

Why is Breaking Up with Facebook Hard to Do?

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Over a year ago, I left Facebook after a seven-year relationship with the social media space. I wrote about my reasons in an article published by Hybrid Pedagogy titled, “Breaking Up with Facebook: Untethering from the Ideological Freight of Online Surveillance.” Essentially, Facebook tracks and monitors user movements and actions throughout their ecosystem using complex algorithms.

I began noticing the algorithmic movements when I saw personalized advertisements on the sides of the Facebook newsfeed. And, while I ultimately deleted my account because of Facebook’s graph search feature, I also felt uncomfortable with Facebook’s algorithms deciding what content I would experience in my newsfeed by promoting some posts over others. 

About a week after publication, a new scandal erupted on social media networks, in mainstream media, and in academic circles. A Facebook employee, a university faculty member, and a graduate student reported on a study conducted in 2012 focusing on emotional contagion, sharing they were able to manipulate newsfeeds for users to learn if emotional contagion could occur. There were several accounts about this study from ethics (Albergotti & Dwoskin, 2014; Arthur, 2014Junco, 2014) to questions about methodology (Albergotti, 2014Grohol, 2014Hill, 2014) to commentary about the experiment (Auerbach, 2014; Boyd, 2014Crawford, 2014). The tools that allowed the researchers to manipulate the newsfeeds were the algorithms Facebook used to control how users experience content on their screens. 

Facebook is back in the news this week because of their algorithms for the lack of content displayed about the ongoing political and social events in Ferguson, Missouri. Many users of Facebook and Twitter have reported that while Twitter shows real-time events in their streams, their Facebook newsfeeds are decidedly quiet about the events. 

If algorithms control what users experience in Facebook, then what really, is the benefit of being a Facebook user if users cannot experience what they want to in the space? 

I ask this question because recently I was encouraged to rejoin Facebook for professional reasons. The person who brought this up to me is someone I have a great deal of respect for, trust their advice, wisdom, and experience in several areas. This person is also aware of and a supporter of my research. 

And, here’s the rub: I know this person is right–right about re-joining a social media space that can provide professional benefits through online social networking.

But, I also can’t shake that re-joining this space calls into question my ethos as a researcher and private citizen who is aware of the surveillance and algorithmic practices of Facebook. This isn’t necessarily because I wrote an article about leaving (well, in small part it is), but that to re-join means I am subject to surveillance, to algorithmic manipulation, and that I become a commodity to Facebook again–all in the service of finding benefit from online networking.

I spoke with a dear friend and colleague about this earlier, and she advised me to consider re-joining, but to do so as connected to my research. Perhaps re-joining (if I decide to do so) will foster a new research project. 

In the meantime, I find myself in a dilemma. Even though I have officially cut ties with Facebook, it seems that breaking up is really hard to do.