2018 was marred with scandal for the social media platform Facebook: data breaches, hacking, political intrusions and data sharing with third parties. The #deleteFacebook campaign was launched in response to Facebook’s diminishing reputation, and Facebook has seen its user numbers decline somewhat in recent months as many people are debating whether Facebook is worth the trouble anymore.
Technologist Lorena Mesa believes the Global Data Ethics Pledge, a pledge developed by Data for Democracy, is a good example of a moral code for technology. “The idea is arguably inspired by the medical practice and the Hippocratic Oath. If we as technologists decide how it is we will put fairness ahead of profit and install ethics into our practices, can we do better? That’s the hope. Outside of the ethics pledge, there are also many promising areas of research which I think instead of pressuring social media to do better could instead fundamentally change the way social works by changing the algorithms we develop. There’s an area of research creating FAT or FATE algorithms – fair, accountable, transparent, and ethical algorithms – which instead of using profit as the thing to maximize on, your algorithm has you use other measurements to maximize – such things as fairness or even privacy.
“It’s stunning what just a small shift in thinking about what our tech can do and how it should it work can bring about.”
Loyola University computer science professor George Thiruvathukal says that when it comes to data sharing practices, “ethics are ultimately about making virtuous choices. And this is where many social media efforts are falling short by sharing data, often with unsavory partners. In the university, we all undergo training when it comes to doing research involving human subjects.
“As most of what these social media companies are doing amounts to a study of human behavior and how to manipulate it, the above principles might be a guide for how to proceed. Above all else, it would probably be ‘good for business’ if these companies can find a way to return to these principles.”
Still, Facebook remains incredibly popular, with 2.27 billion active users in the third quarter of 2018, and it continues to grow in markets outside of the U.S. – so clearly, even with their very public failings, Facebook is providing a service that people want and value, even as they question whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
Mesa and Thiruvathukal join us in discussion.