Message from Keith
It’s not exactly a breakup, but it does seem like our intense, decade-long love affair with social media may finally be starting to fade. A little less starry-eyed passion, and a little more realism, is probably a good thing.
Over the years, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and mobile apps like WhatsApp and WeChat have created an obsession with sharing—or over-sharing—our every mood, hang-up, hook-up or breakup. Search engines like Google have placed every tidbit of obscure information, historical factoid, every recipe or medical remedy, entirely at our fingertips. And e-commerce has made shopping for virtually anything as accessible as a couple of keystrokes.
But all that tapping, searching, shopping and sharing has created a trove of personal data on all of us. Your friends, your favourite foods, your political leanings, the brands you buy and the music you listen to are all out there and available for advertisers, or others with more nefarious purposes, to mine, unless steps are taken to protect it.
It took the Cambridge Analytica scandal, involving some 50 million Facebook users having their data wrongly harvested by a political consulting firm working on behalf of Donald Trump, to shake consumers out of their complacency. Many are starting to realise what they should have considered all along: What you share or search on the Internet should not necessarily be assumed as private.
Maybe it was because I worked as a correspondent in Beijing that I always assumed email was being monitored, cell phone calls could be listened to and text messages might be tracked. In Beijing, if I wanted to have a private conversation with my news assistant, we had it walking through the parking lot on the way to Starbucks. If you met a dissident or a human rights lawyer in a coffee shop, you left your cell phone in the car, so it would not be turned into a remote listening device. You interviewed people in person, not by email.
People, and governments, are now getting smarter. The Australian Defence Department in March banned personnel from downloading the Chinese-owned WeChat app onto their phones, citing concerns over possible spyware. The Indian government did the same last December. The European Union has imposed new privacy rules for individuals to go into effect in May. And users everywhere are rushing to check, and in many cases tighten, their privacy settings.
The heightened privacy concern is long overdue. But we also have to be careful not to go overboard. The fledgling #DeleteFacebook movement seems to me a gross overreaction. Social media has become an integral part of our lives. For us at JMSC, it has also become a teaching too—we create Facebook groups for our classes and assignments. More readers now get their news from Facebook than from the website of The Washington Post.
Everyone needs to be more conscious of protecting their online information, and that is particularly true of journalists who must keep protecting confidential sources, alongside truth telling, as their highest priority. Just like we operated in Beijing, reporters need to do as much face-to-face interviewing and on-the-ground reporting as possible. They need to use the encryption tools available to shield their information and sources.
So keep posting those selfies and baby pictures. But if you want something to stay private, best keep it offline. And if you don’t want your personal information tracked, ditch the e-commerce site, get off the couch, and walk to a store to make that purchase. And make sure to pay in cash.
Director of the JMSC