A strange thing happened to me a couple days ago. I was making myself some lunch and browsing Facebook, when an alert popped up asking if I had just logged in from Vietnam. I clicked “No” and Facebook had me change my password, as it appeared I had been hacked.
After changing my password, I noticed that whatever bot had hacked me had uploaded a new profile picture on my account of some kind of militant group. As I was trying to delete the profile picture and change it back, I got an alert that my account had been disabled for violating Facebook’s content policy! Apparently the only way to get it back is to upload a picture of your photo ID and wait to hear from them.
I found it amazing that within the span of 3 minutes,
- I got hacked by an algorithm in Vietnam,
- the algorithm uploaded a militant group’s photo, and then
- the Facebook algorithm noticed the photo and automatically disabled my account.
No humans were involved in any of these actions! And there’s nothing to do now but wait for (I hope?) an actual human to review the case and restore my account. It’s made me realize a couple things:
- Our existence and interaction online is extremely dependent on non-human AI making decisions for us. Our social media feeds are not “what’s happening,” or least of all what’s good for us to see. Our feeds are populated by algorithms that prioritize “engagement” above all else. We see what the algorithm wants us to see, and our accounts can be hacked and disabled within minutes by algorithms. It makes our online existence seem really fragile to me.
- I haven’t been on Facebook in two days, and I think I’m just fine. I also think other people are probably doing find without my presence on Facebook. I’m still processing this, but I’m struck by how quickly a social media “habit” can be broken and feel essentially unnecessary so quickly.
I sometimes wonder if all these social media networks went away overnight if we’d all just sort of blink a few times, look around at each other, and say, “Well, that was weird,” and then get on with our lives.
They position themselves to seem vital and necessary, and they all want to “change the world” and such, but none of these companies were actually started to promote the common good. They’re not public squares. They’re ad-funded, for-profit companies seeking to exploit our attention to make money. And we have a weird, complicated relationship with them.
It’s a convenient way to have conversations (and arguments!) online, and a lot of us use them in this way, but the underlying nature of how these platforms work is becoming more and more concerning to me. They’re shaping our brains and our interactions in very subtle but comprehensive ways. I’m not convinced it’s actually good for us to be “connected” to each other in these ways.
I’m still processing all this, though. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. That’s why I started this blog in the first place 15 years ago: to have conversations with people who didn’t live near me. It seems like social media has largely taken over that online sphere, but at what cost?
[UPDATE March 27, 2020]: They also stole my debit card from my Facebook ads account and rang up over $7,000 in fraudulent charges! A third lesson has been learned: do NOT trust Facebook with sensitive personal information. Their security is a joke.