Privacy in the Golden Age of Social Media

By Michael J. Napoleone

Think way back to your life before Facebook (or LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter, or whatever is your social media platform of choice). When you would occasionally – or never – have contact with people you knew from high school or college, or even people who live in your community, but with whom you don’t come into contact often. Think about all your family and friends who live far away, and who you might hear from at birthdays and holidays (if you were lucky, you’d get a picture of their kids or – the Holy Grail – a thoughtfully composed letter filling you in on the details of the life they have been living over the past year).

Fast forward to today. On a daily or hourly basis, you have shared conversations, photos, thoughts, prayers, memes (my God, the memes), videos and even live streamed moments with “friends” all over the world. And it cost you NOTHING (except the hours of your life that is now consumed by Facebook and other social media outlets) – it was all FREE.

What did you agree to in exchange for access to this transformational communication platform? Some of your privacy – but not all. Only that which you were willing to share and post on each platform. Admit it, you had a vague idea that there were some “terms of service” that you ignored and rapidly agreed to on your way to setting up your account.

Odds are great that you are out zero dollars because the information you voluntarily shared was either hacked or shared with others (including shadowy countries or corporations with ill motives). Someone may have made up a fake account and tricked your friends into communicating with “you” – but no real damage was done. Maybe you were surprised at some pop-up advertisements that knew what you might be interested in based upon your own shared likes and browsing history. Maybe you were exposed to fake news or an ad or fake account created by a Russian agent who wanted to influence your vote in the last election.

Is it Facebook’s fault that you read a story or viewed a meme or engaged with someone you don’t really know and were misled? Did you just take what you read at face value? Did you fact check? Did you have a discussion with a real person that you know (either online or in person) to discuss it? Did you have any level of intellectual curiosity that inspired you to dig deeper? Probably not.

Before we plunge headlong into regulation (or over regulation) of social media sites, or making them pay-to-play sites, consider that your participation in them is and remains voluntary. The only information at risk is that which you put at risk.