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Social media is social spyware
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”
– Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other popular social media apps allow billions of people around the world to freely share posts, pictures, and other information with their friends and followers. But as Robert Heinlein so aptly noted, there are no free lunches, especially when you consider the billions of dollars that social media companies spend on the infrastructure to provide these “free” services.
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Whether the users of these platforms recognize it or not, the payment that they make to these companies is their data, on everything from their likes and dislikes, to their biometrics, their location, their social connections, and their political inclinations. All of this data is mined for purposes ranging from providing targeted advertising to the users of these apps, to more nefarious purposes such as nation-states spying on their citizens or those of other countries.
On top of this, there are the impacts that social media apps have on the human psyche, especially the impacts it has on children and young adults. Increases in suicide, depression, and self-harm rates have all been traced to the widespread use of social media. In addition, social memes spread on certain platforms have been directly linked to the death and injury of children as they repeat the behaviors that they have seen others perform.
What can social media users do to protect themselves against these threats? First and foremost, don’t use them, and delete the apps on your phone if you did use them. However, if this is not an option due to family pressures or business obligations, at least limit your exposure.
If you have children, seriously consider if your child or teen needs access to any of these apps (regardless of their cry’s that they will be social outcasts without them). We all managed to connect with our friends before the advent of social media, and if forced, today’s children can rediscover these same channels (it’s called talking). If you must or wish to use these platforms, access them via a privacy-focused browser such as Safari or Firefox, and not by using the apps themselves. This alone significantly limits the platform’s ability to collect data on your usage and on you personally (but does not eliminate the data collection).
Finally, remember Heinlein’s wise words in all aspects of your life and its important corollary: If you are playing poker and you don’t know who the mark is at the table, it’s you.