The defining tech story of 2018 is that social media is a modern-day version of slavery, using personal data for financial gain


When George Soros warned at the beginning of the year that social media had become a “menace” to society and “obstacles to innovation”, he could scarcely have known his admonitions would be proved so correct this year, as Facebook imploded in a privacy storm and he himself would became their target.

By the end of this year, whatever niceties were left in our opinion of Facebook, the largest communications network the world has ever seen, have long been seared out of us.

Facebook, like humanity itself, is open to manipulation, deceit, hatred, shaming and all the other awful traits that we have. Except it is, to use the startup industry terms, “at scale”. As much as Facebook has enabled us to “connect” with anyone anywhere in the world – including all those morons from high school that we hoped wed never have to deal with again – so too has Facebook enabled cyberbullying, anti-Semitism, election manipulation, etc on a unprecedented grand scale.

This is the year that social media turned nasty. Or, sadly, the year we realised this simmering problem has been there for years and we only just noticed. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world wide web, put it the big online firms have been able “to weaponise the web at scale”.

In his testimony to American lawmakers Mark Zuckerberg was at pains to stress how people could control how they posted to Facebook and who could see it.

It was a similar thread to what he said on his year-long apology tour after the Cambridge Analytica story forever destroyed any lingering innocence in our understanding of social media.

Zuckerberg’s disingenuous “talking point” arguably sums up what has gone wrong with Facebook: although he highlighted the control users have over who sees their postings, it is the unseen forces that are beyond its users controls that truly matter.

Facebook has so-called “shadow profiles” of the 2.2bn people who use the world’s largest social network.

In the communications industry parlance, it’s called “controlling the narrative”.

But Facebook has long since lost that battle. And humanity, along the way, has lost our privacy. Our personal data, like Soros and Berners-Lee forewarned, has been weaponised.

It’s a modern kind of slavery, isn’t it. Instead of our labour being taken from us for free and people forced to do manual labour; in this modern incarnation our identities, our personal preferences, our network of friends, and all those other things that define us have been handed over to someone else to make money from. And not just financial exploitation, our identities are beyond our control.

Facebook’s simmering cesspool of hatred, misogyny, racism, fake news and patently untrue conspiracy theories has been truly revealed, as has the reality that there are two Facebooks: the endless news feed of pointless posts by friends you’ve liked before, fake news, targeted advertising, and the inevitable cat videos – all the result of the algorithms (and previous likes) that Facebook assumes we want to see. It’s a vast echo chamber that has effectively made this global village into a real village – judging by the anti-immigrant, self-serving but fatally short-sighted outcomes of Brexit and the right-wing, anti-establishment backlash that was so skilfully manipulated by Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 US elections.

Then there is the Facebook for the advertisers. The real Facebook where so-called “shadow profiles” have been created in a vast database, often using data we haven’t supplied.

We will be forced to live with the consequences.

This article first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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