Don't fear Facebook, pity it. It's a datavore with no data

Facebook can draw inferences from your likes. But who has any likes anymore?

Our very own Helen Lewis has a piece in today's Guardian where she throws cold water on the fears that Facebook's users were giving away more than they meant to by liking pages. She writes:

Dig a little deeper and some of this soul-scrying voodoo becomes slightly less terrifying. One of the TV-show likes that's a predictor of female homosexuality is The L Word – a drama about lesbians. Two of the pages associated with being a gay man are Wicked the Musical (no comment) and the No H8 campaign, which advocates equal marriage. I'm sure you could guess my gender from my self-declared love of Jane Austen and the history of fashion on Facebook. Or you could just look at my name.

But there's a bigger reason why we oughtn't be that concerned: who the hell clicks "like" anymore?

Facebook is designed to be used in a way that corresponds with the actual use patterns of fewer and fewer of its members. Even "active users"—its new preferred metric, since the total number of registered users is now limited by the population of the earth—may not be active the way it likes us to be.

The perfect Facebook user checks in whenever they go somewhere; they like the pages of all their favourite bands, movies, TV shows, and even their dentist; they tell Facebook where they work and went to school; they visit other sites through apps on Facebook; and they never, ever change their privacy settings from the default.

Does that describe you? Does that describe anyone?

The fact is that for an increasing number of people Facebook is basically a glorified webmail service. There's still a lot of money to be made in that—targeted ads served against keywords culled from your messages and events is the reason why Google runs Gmail, for instance—but not enough to justify Facebook's market cap, and certainly not as much as Mark Zuckerberg would like.

The company's been big at giving users new ways to get data out of Facebook, such as redesigning its news feed and introducing Graph Search; but it has yet to touch on any changes which would make people more likely to put data in. As Buzzfeed's John Herrman writes, Facebook "is demanding more and more of a graph that is able to provide less and less."

The real problem we all face isn't that the information we put out on the internet might be used against us. Despite looking like it was going to be ubiquitous, the fad for documenting every aspect of one's life is dying off. Foursquare has pivoted to be about providing data, rather than encouraging check-ins; Instagram, which provides ephemeral, context-free images, was poised to overtake Facebook as the leading photo service on line (until it became Facebook); and when was the last time you "liked" something?

We don't have to worry about what we put out on purpose; the problem is what we put out without knowing. It's not scary if Facebook can tell you're gay because you choose to like certain pages; it's more concerning that Google can tell your age because of your search habits; and it's downright worrying that Target can find out a teenage girl is pregnant before her own father based on what she buys.

If you choose what data to share, you are probably not too concerned about the inferences that can be drawn from it. But very little of what we share is done voluntarily these days; and as Facebook struggles to get us to give it the information it wants, they too may start taking it from us without asking. That's when it gets more concerning, because that's when it gets harder to fight.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.