The Danger of Not Asking Questions

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

One of the things I’m most grateful for is that I was privileged enough to have decent teachers growing up. Honestly, though, I feel like everything I know today, I learned in or some form or another in elementary school…

Like the wisdom to know what questions need to be asked and the confidence to ask them.

In my elementary school English classes, I learned that to take something at face value was to do a disservice to the complexity of that very thing, and in so doing, I would be robbing myself of the insights that thing had to offer. I learned to put myself in the position of the character, to see things from their perspective however different it may have been from my own. I learned to examine motives behind characters’ actions because there was never a cause without an intended effect. Arguably most importantly, I learned to identify when I didn’t have enough information available to me to draw a logical conclusion about the topic.

Of course, none of that was terribly deep or complicated at the time considering it was elementary school. Still, those lessons stayed and grew with me as I continued on in my education.

I don’t take for granted the fact that education varies greatly from state to state, school to school, and even classroom to classroom, nor do I assume that everyone paid as close attention in English class as I did. At the very least, I hope most people left their study of literature, regardless of how extensive it was, with the understanding that there’s always more to discover beneath the surface.

And isn’t discovery exciting? Isn’t learning fun? Isn’t mystery the spice of life? I know I sound like a motivational poster for eight-year olds, but once something piques your interest, don’t you want to just dive further and further into it?

Sure, maybe I’m naturally inquisitive and maybe I just like knowing things, but I’m no lawyer or investigator, and I don’t have any secret resources available to me. I will say that I do have slightly obsessive tendencies when I get really into something, though. One time, I stayed up until 4 in the morning learning about how to build my own kayak from Canadian driftwood. That’s one way to spend a Saturday night.

Anyway, it seems as though our nation has lost its collective curiosity. Either that, or we’ve lost our ability to ask sensible questions.

That said, asking questions can be a tricky endeavor, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. To ask a question, you have to first define the issue, cut out all the noise surrounding it, and whittle it down to its core. Then you have to determine what the goal is – are you looking to understand a complex issue, are you trying to solve a problem, or are you trying to offer guidance or advice? Finally, you have to determine what information is needed to help you reach that goal.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s really a second-nature order of operations for most of us for most things. But for more complicated things, we’ve got to be more diligent.

Mark Zuckerberg just spent two days in front of Congress discussing Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Briefly, Cambridge Analytica is consulting firm in England that accessed millions of Facebook users’ data without their knowledge in an effort to mine it, analyze it, and use it to shape political campaign strategies for the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump.

A few things –

First of all, this isn’t the only time social media data has been used to inform and bolster campaign strategies, so why is this any different from previous instances? Secondly, can people really be upset that their own data was essentially used against them when they’re willingly, voluntarily, and actively using the social media platform? Third – is there anything illegal here, or is Cambridge Analytica just unethical? Finally, what’s the real issue here?

The thing that makes this data mining incident unlike others lies in the way Cambridge Analytica amassed their data stores. If one Facebook user gave permission to the company to access their information (without knowledge of what information would be taken or for what purpose), the company would acquire not just the user’s data, but their friends’ data, too. Those friends did not give permission for their data to be released.

That being said, many have asserted that once you choose to participate in a social media platform such as Facebook, you’re volunteering your data to be compiled and consumed and you’re naïve to think that your data is secure. The inherent issue with this line of thinking is that just because something happens, doesn’t mean it’s right or good. Of course, there are all kinds of stipulations that go along with that, though.

The question people are asking is whether or not any of this is illegal, and if not, what’s the big deal? The overall accusation is that illegal data mining took place in an effort to illegally provide foreign aid to an American political campaign. All of that is going to be examined in the coming months. Right now, we can’t prove that Cambridge Analytica’s strategies and actions directly resulted in the election of Donald Trump as POTUS in 2016, even though key members of his campaign team were heavily involved in the data acquisition.

So where does that leave us?

The real issue here isn’t Facebook or its data mining or even how that data is used. The scariest thing of all of this is how easily manipulated people can be.

Cambridge Analytica’s primary strategy throughout the 2016 election was a low-key form of mind control. It’s basic stuff, but it was executed on a wide scale. Through your own Facebook friends lists, your likes, your comments, your clicks, your shares, etc., Cambridge Analytica was able to discern a psychological profile for what you loved, what motivated you, what infuriated you, and what you were afraid of. All of that is fine, but what happened next was terrifying.

They played to people’s fears. If someone was inclined to believe that Mexicans were rapists, their feed would get flooded with articles that supported that belief – whether or not those articles were factual or even real.

And therein lies the problem. We’re all so eager to believe what we want to believe that we don’t take a moment to question if what we’re reading and consuming is even true. Between that and the positive reinforcement we get from our friend circles, who more often than not share our political and social views, we get caught up in a vortex, tunnel-visioned into bias, misunderstanding, and misplaced allegiance. Things that were never OK are suddenly justified, and nonsense terms like “alternative facts” seem to make sense.

If our nation was duped into voting for Donald Trump, then we did it to ourselves. Much of that is human nature, and we’re all susceptible to the dangers of manipulation, passive acceptance, and normalization, but when the stakes are so high, we really have to be better. We need to be vigilant.

Mark Zuckerberg just spent two days in a Senate hearing discussing everything related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook, and the greater implications of the data breach. One thing that was painfully obvious throughout the whole thing was how little these senators understood about what they were questioning Zuckerberg about. Each senator was given five minutes to ask questions, and much of that time was wasted on things that could have been answered with a quick Google search – and any kind of digital savvy.

For example…

Senator Nelson didn’t understand how direct targeting worked with ads. This is essentially when your Internet usage tells advertisers what kinds of ads you’d likely be interested in. While ads are and will always be annoying, they’re at least made to be more tolerable if the ads are something relevant to the user. This is much more efficient for advertisers and it provides a better experience for users. Senator Nelson was basically asking, “What if I don’t want to see that ad?” without drawing the correlation that when you watch television or drive down the freeway, you’re not exactly choosing to watch those commercials or look at those billboards.

Senator Dorgan thought that Facebook poking was “a sex thing,” and wasted an entire question on that.

Senator Hatch spoke in circles for a while about Facebook’s basic profit-making strategy. Again, this information is not secret. It’s not even unique to Facebook. When asked how he sustained a free social platform, Zuckerberg said with an incredulous smile, “Senator…we run ads.”

Personally, I think a good place to start with anything is motive. Who’s motivated by what? I never got the impression that Mark Zuckerberg was motivated by greed or infamy. He always seemed more concerned with his legacy. He wanted to build an amazing product, he wanted to change the world, and he wanted to be remembered for doing so. I believe he wants to fix this, but fixing the problems facing the smaller, more globalized planet that have arisen as the result of social media will be never-ending.

I’m reminded of Captain America: Civil War. The “civil war” erupted between Captain America, Steve Rogers, and Iron Man, Tony Stark. Stark argued that the Avengers needed government control and regulation because they were too big, too dangerous, and too unstable to manage themselves. Cap argued that this would go against everything the Avengers stood for. He also said that nobody understood the team as well as they did, so inviting the people to govern something they didn’t fully understand would be more of a hindrance than a help.

Obviously Zuckerberg is Cap and the government is…the government without a Tony Stark advocating for them. If we gathered anything from the hearings, it’s that the Senate really doesn’t get how Facebook is run or used.

If there’s a way forward from here, it’s going to take quite a bit of collaboration between Facebook and the government, and far more incredulity from Zuck.

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