When the news of the massive Facebook data breach, also known as the Cambridge Analytica Files, broke on the night of March 16-17, global retribution was swift. A hashtag emerged, #deletefacebook, which ironically trended on the social media site. This is not the first instance of a data breach on Facebook — some of the initial news reports date back to 2014 — but it has been the biggest expose so far. Now that the usual suspects — Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, app developers — have lined up to face the music, one guilty party is having a hard time looking in the mirror. It’s us Facebook users, who have willingly leaked our own data out, all through the years.
Facebook offers us the chance to curate an idealised version of ourselves to the world, but nothing is a match for our vanity. If Mrs Sharma’s son has gone to Buenos Aires for their summer break, one must “FaceGram” the heck out of those pictures taken in Los Angeles, a city sounding as Spanish as the Argentinian capital; check-in at all the hot spots; and tag as many heads and hands in a group selfie. After agreeing to share a variety of details from our profiles and our friends list, a bit rich, isn’t it, to then cry foul?
Some of us, though, caught on to our data being mined earlier than others. In New Delhi, for quite some time now, Anubha Yadav has been playing a game with the social media site. “I mark articles and advertisements as ‘hurtful’ or ‘annoying’ — when they are actually not. Or I’ll Google something vague like baseball and see if the advertisements start on Facebook — they often do,” she says over email. The 42-year-old academic and writer joined Facebook in 2006, and has used the site for networking purposes, to share her work, and read articles. “One cannot generalise about India, but we access and use Facebook for various reasons, voluntarily, with its pros and cons. At best, I think we love interacting, sharing — the traditional offline systems are not enough,” she says.
Yadav has a point. When Facebook took off in India in 2007, it was mostly limited to an urban user base, given that the advent of smartphones were still three-four years away. But since 2011, India has been the fastest growing market for the company. According to We Are Social and Hootsuite, companies that track social media, with 250 million active users, India constitutes 12 per cent of Facebook’s user base. And though social media penetration in the country remains low compared to the West, most of the engagement with Facebook is via the smartphone — this is where we willingly leak our data from. Along with our Google and Apple profiles, created when we purchase any of their devices, Facebook has become the greatest marker of our time on earth. If you’re not on Facebook, who are you?
The data breach has left Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman unfazed. When it comes to Facebook, the 32-year-old Kolkata-based activist contains multitudes — she has three profiles. “I use Facebook to raise awareness around abuse prevention, personal safety and emergency situations,” says Devburman. She also uses the site to share her very personal history of child sexual abuse and reach out to other survivors. “We are a generation of serial online empaths; in fact, we constitute what the #metoo movement is, albeit on a smaller scale,” she says.
Two years ago, around the time the second rumblings of data mining were reverberating online, one of the major debates on social media was the sharing of children’s photos — how algorithms will only get smarter every year, and there will be little left of a child’s right to privacy. “I’ll take my chances,” says Bodhisatwa Dasgupta, 35, creative director at a Gurgaon-based ad firm. Since the birth of his daughter Meera in 2011, he has regularly posted photos and written detailed notes about their time together. “Some pictures are fine, such as Meera in her school uniform on her first day at school; sitting on a swing etc. But what happens when she’s grown up and I’m not there? If there aren’t any memories she can go back to, to relive our times together,” he says.
In a conversation over Facebook Messenger, an app most reviled for its bullying tactics that force people to download and use it, writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar talks about how his engagement with social media took a drastic turn. Last year, after posting an article on Facebook about Ol-Chiki, the standard script used to write Santhali, his mother tongue, the 34-year-old author was bullied on the site by the supporters of the Roman script for Santhali. “I was attacked by people who I do not know personally but who had come to me as friends — I blocked them after some time,” says Shekhar. A smear campaign branded his writings as “pornographic” all over Facebook and WhatsApp — there was a parody page about Shekhar as well. “But support, too, came from Facebook,” he says, adding that in spite of these troubles, he did not consider deleting his account.
In the rash of think pieces that have erupted in the wake of the data leaks, many a writer has pondered about Facebook’s addictive reward system that spawns likes, comments and shares. If one deletes social media, what kind of interaction remains for a generation that lives so much of their lives online? “The reward system is there in both real and virtual life. Online, at least you are allowed to curate what you wish to reward or be rewarded for — that can be liberating for many who do not have that freedom in real life. I see social media as a tool, it is here to stay, so we better adopt and adapt,”