Recently, the Cambridge Analytica scandal made headlines worldwide. If you haven't followed the story, you've undoubtedly seen "#DeleteFacebook" make its way across your screen — maybe even on Facebook.
The scandal, in short, involves Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based data firm who indirectly acquired the information of millions of Facebook users. The firm then used that information to create an app that allowed them to target potential swing voters in two major political campaigns — Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump's 2016 election bid in the United States.
People have reason to be upset. The company exploited Facebook users who agreed to share their information when they filled in online quizzes or personality tests. Cambridge Analytica quietly retrieved not only all of their information, but the data of their Facebook friends, too, who hadn't taken the test or specifically agreed to be included.
Technically, Facebook didn't do anything wrong. At the time when the data collection was taking place, Facebook's policies allowed for the collection of friends' data by app creators and academics. Sure, there are technicalities, but the action itself wasn't completely corrupt.
Still, there's no arguing that what Cambridge Analytica did wasn't, on a moral level, wrong. Put simply, they took advantage of people who unknowingly supplied their friends' data and then used that data to manipulate major, real-life events. Eighty-seven million people were affected worldwide, more than 600,000 of which are Canadian. It's immoral, frightening and threatens already delicate democratic systems.
By agreeing to these policies, you are putting your information into the hands of Facebook. Facebook is in the business of selling this information to people and organizations that find incredible value in your data. Your information (everything from status updates to usage habits) is tracked, analyzed by artificial intelligence, compiled and sold to companies like The Bay and Air Canada — and Cambridge Analytica — who use it sell you products and ideas. But how can we be upset when we agreed, after all?
The internet is a battle for your attention. Pay-per-click websites will do just about anything to get you on their landing page, and one of the easiest ways to do that it is to spread news that they know from your data profile will appeal to you. Fortunately and unfortunately, the internet has allowed everyone to confirm every absurd or ignorant opinion they hold, share it with others of like mind, and ignore all evidence to the contrary.
In short, you can find something somewhere online that will back up whatever you believe. Our desire to prove our opinions right only encourages the creation of fake news. Before you share an article because it supports the point you were making at Easter dinner, check to see what the source is. Is it credible? Do they fact check? Sites like Snopes provide free fact-checking and immediately discredit many "true" stories.
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If you share fake news, it gains traction, makes money for someone, and encourages whoever produced it to produce more of the same counterfeit tripe. You're giving them the ability to pump out more false information to feed those who are hungry for it. It might be satisfying to share an article bashing your least-favourite movie star, but if the story isn't true, it's doing more harm than good.
We all have a duty to reinforce and exemplify high standards for the use and production of information. We have to understand the risks and act accordingly, commit to stop the spread of what is obviously fake news, and be aware of the implications of our digital behaviour.
In the long run, creating an environment that requires truth and integrity, and values journalistic standards and moral practices, will make both the online realm and the real world a safer place for everyone.
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