Analysis

Could this be social media's Big Tobacco reckoning?

Experts wonder if the massive Facebook data scandal will erode public trust so much that people will break free of highly addictive social media platforms.

Society once thought people couldn't quit smoking, and now experts wonder if they can quit social media

Although many people are questioning their social media use in the midst of the Facebook data scandal, some believe it's impossible for us as a society to quit. But there was a time people felt the same way about smoking, experts argue. (kavee29/Shutterstock)

The warnings have been sounded for years: Facebook is bad for us. It's fuelling the spread of misinformation. It's messing with democracy.

But recent revelations about the massive collection of personal Facebook data might be the watershed moment in which users come to terms with what they've long been cautioned about and step away in significant numbers from the online platform.

In an Angus Reid survey of 1,500 Canadians conducted in the days following the new revelations, most Canadians said they plan on changing the way they use Facebook.

Sixty-four per cent of respondents said they plan on using Facebook less and changing their privacy settings, while 10 per cent said they would suspend or even delete their accounts.

Could this be Facebook's reckoning? A Big Tobacco moment, in which a platform that has grown in popularity for over a decade is deemed potentially harmful to the well-being of its users?

After all, while cigarettes are now widely recognized as unhealthy and consumed by only a minority of consumers, there was a time when smoking was widespread.

Mounting objections

Objections against Facebook — for instance, how it fuels the spread of fake news, how it amplifies social divisions and how it enables cyberbullying — have been growing for a while. Earlier this year, even executives from the company itself added their voices to the mounting concerns, posting about the social media platform's more controversial shortcomings in a blog series called "Hard Questions."

And yet, people kept logging on — as of January, Facebook boasted more than  two billion users. They kept posting photos, kept updating their statuses and kept clicking the little thumbs-up and tiny red hearts.

But with the latest whistleblower exposé — which revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political data firm, harvested the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users — many experts say all that could change.

Whether it was a breach or by design, Facebook was aware of the firm's data manipulation since 2015 and, it appears, did nothing to protect its users.

Canadian whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who alleges his former employer Cambridge Analytica abused data from unsuspecting Facebook users for political purposes in the U.S. and the U.K., testified before a British parliamentary committee on Tuesday. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Facebook has since announced it would simplify its often hard-to-navigate privacy and security settings to make it easier for users to adjust them and access the data that has been collected about them.

These changes, while positive, have been a long time coming.

"For years, critics have argued that social media firms were not properly protecting user data and were vulnerable to manipulation," said Frank Pasquale, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and the author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information.

"Firms like Facebook used trade secrecy and strict non-disclosure agreements to keep outside scrutiny to a minimum, so there was a 'black box' problem — no one outside the company had access to critical data."

One could argue users knew what they were signing up for. In 2014, Apple chief — and Facebook critic — Tim Cook, wrote an open letter that included the internet maxim "when an online service is free, you're not the customer. You're the product." 

While most users were unlikely to grasp that at the time, there were benefits to the trade-off that kept people coming back to the platform, again and again — namely, keeping connected to friends and family.

Just as critics have been raising red flags about Facebook, there were warnings about the dangers of smoking long before people's habits started to change.

The first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, published in 1964, detailed the dangers to smokers, unborn children and bystanders. But as NPR reported, years later, many people still had no idea that smoking was dangerous because everyone they knew did it.

No going back

Despite all of the previous warnings about Facebook, this time feels different, says Taylor Owen, an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.

"Before last week," he says, "most people didn't really realize how Facebook worked and how they made their money. This has now changed and can't be reversed."

Now, we're seeing inside the black box, says Pasquale.

"People are realizing that whatever convenience and entertainment Facebook users may bring them, the social network itself has had terrible effects on media, culture, democracy, and even the personal psychology of many."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been asked to testify in both the U.S. and the U.K. about the data scandal. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

The turning point for the tobacco industry came about as a result of control efforts launched following that first Surgeon General's report, including putting warning labels on cigarette packages, escalating taxes on cigarettes and implementing restrictions on where people could smoke.

But it was also a result of more visceral, emotional warnings, such as the revelation that the actor who played the Marlboro Man, the hero of big tobacco, died of lung cancer.

Following its latest controversy, calls for government oversight have been widespread.

Even Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has said the platform needs regulation. "If you look at how much regulation there is around advertising on TV and print, it's just not clear why there should be less on the internet."

Meanwhile, tech titan Elon Musk announced that he has deleted the Facebook accounts for his companies Tesla and SpaceX.

Valuable commodity

Data has become, arguably, the most valuable commodity of our time. As users discover just how much information the platform has been collecting on them, and how their own data is being used against them, they're becoming increasingly uneasy.

The information that Facebook has amassed ranges from the pages people "like" to, in the case of Android users, a full list of all of their phone calls and texts. The information was reportedly being accessed so that Facebook could improve its friend recommendation algorithm.

According to a recent Angus Reid poll, nearly six out of 10 Canadians use Facebook every day.

While statistics like that might make it seem as though the social platform is too entrenched in our lives for us to drop it — and indeed, "too big to fail" — it's worth considering the public reckoning for smoking.

"Back in 1964," writes Elizabeth MacBride in Forbes magazine, "when the surgeon general officially identified the health risks of tobacco, it would have been hard to imagine life without cigarettes. That year, 42 per cent of Americans smoked. Today, 17.8 per cent do."

"It took 60-plus years and a combination of information, regulation and lawsuits to drive the smoking rate down," MacBride said.

While quitting smoking might have been difficult, as a population, getting off this social media platform could prove to be even harder.

"Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol," said Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the U.K.'s Royal Society for Public Health, in a statement.

As Owen explains, Facebook, Google and Amazon "have become deeply embedded in our economies and societies. And this is precisely the problem."

Pasquale believes in time, slowly but surely, people will start spending less time on Facebook.

"Its whole appeal is easy, automatic interaction. When you start wondering about how you're being manipulated, why you are seeing what you are seeing, the spell is broken."