The New Social Media Imperative: Distance Yourself

As Facebook just learned, a social network’s reputation can sour in an instant.
Here’s how to save your own.

Elon Musk deleted the Facebook pages of both Tesla and SpaceX on Friday. Should you and your company do the same?

Just like Musk, you have to guard your professional reputation — and the reputation of your company. That means you can’t be associated with criminal, shady or pornographic social sites. Establishing and maintaining a public, named presence on 4chan, for example, would not be a career-enhancing move for most executives; 4chan is discreditable.

It takes years to establish a personal, professional or corporate presence on social sites. Millions of man-hours spent on crafting posts, engaging with followers and mastering site-specific techniques and practices can be suddenly wasted when that social site starts “breaking bad” in the public imagination.

Just look at what happened to Facebook.

The Facebook fiascos

It all started when President Trump’s 2016 election campaign hired the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, which used apparently frivolous “personality quizzes” and a goofy app to create personality profiles of some 50 million Facebook users and influence their voting behavior.

Data collected included personal details, friend relationships and even “likes.”

That sounds innocent enough. Users opted in, right? Wrong. Only about 270,000 users consented to sharing personal data. The majority were harvested through the consenting minority, as part of their “social graphs.”

In other words, those 270,000 gave permission for Cambridge Analytica to harvest personal details on 50 million.

These personality profiles were then used to select highly targeted political ads. The technique used was developed by scientists at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Center.

Facebook has since banned the features that enabled this data collection. But it gets worse.

Although Cambridge Analytica reportedly told Facebook that it had deleted the personal data, it turns out it had not, prompting Facebook to ban Cambridge Analytica from the network. Experts say the data is probably being sold on the dark web.

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The public is also aware of the related matter of Facebook’s face-recognition feature. As with the Cambridge Analytica data, Facebook allows a minority of users to give Facebook permission to violate the privacy of the majority. Any picture of you can be tagged by anyone with access to that picture, which means that Facebook can know, when any new picture of you is uploaded, that it is, in fact, you. Without your permission.

If you don’t want your exact ID associated in Facebook’s incredibly advanced face-recognition database, well, that’s just too bad. (Note that Google’s policy with Google Photos is even worse, because on that site you can never even know you’ve been tagged.)

The public has also grown disillusioned with Facebook over the Russian government’s apparent use of it to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Cambridge Analytica news served as the last straw for millions of users anxious about Facebook’s collection and handling of personal data, triggering use of the hashtag #DeleteFacebook.

A spate of how-to articles instructing how to delete a Facebook account rippled through the internet.

Even WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton tweeted the #DeleteFacebook hashtag. Facebook owns WhatsApp, though Acton left the company last year.

The public outcry about Facebook’s missteps prompted political action.

The FTC launched an investigation this week into whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent agreement over user privacy. Congress began the process of launching hearings on the matter.

A U.K. parliamentary committee asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to appear and answer questions.

After some silence, Zuckerberg posted a statement on Facebook saying he’s “really sorry that this happened” and admitted the company “made mistakes.”

The whole fiasco leaves business executives and enterprises in a pickle: Do we really want to associate our own public reputations with Facebook?

And what about YouTube?

The YouTube debacles

Google’s YouTube has also plummeted recently in the public’s judgment, caused by several sordid stories in the news.

Several high-profile YouTube “stars” were slammed recently for racist, anti-Semitic or extremely insensitive videos. YouTube took action against these content creators, but the damage to its reputation was done.

The link between morally retrograde stunt-making and YouTube fame is not incidental. YouTube’s algorithms favor the most extreme content and make them go viral. YouTube stars are in a heated arms race for attention, and YouTube rewards these stunts with fame and fortune.

As the public grapples with politically motivated “fake news” and viral conspiracy theories, it has emerged in recent weeks and months that YouTube is a major driver of these phenomena.

Because of the way YouTube algorithms work, an innocent search for some basic content dredges up suggested follow-on videos, which usually involve increasingly extreme content.

As one example, a curious consumer of news might search YouTube to learn more about NASA and the space program. By clicking down the YouTube rabbit hole, it’s only a matter of time before most of the videos offered are about how NASA faked the moon landing, documentaries “revealing” how the illuminati tricked the world into believing the world isn’t flat, and how the space program’s technology comes from aliens.

My example is amusing. But apply this same process to politics, religion, terrorism, sex or any number of topics, and you can see how corrosive algorithms that favor extremism can be.

This also proved true, by the way, for YouTube Kids content. Recent reports show that the supposedly child-friendly version of YouTube also exposed children to conspiracy theories presented as fact.

Worse, a recent scandal demonstrated that unscrupulous and anonymous YouTube accounts were using A.I. to auto-generate viral children’s content to, in the words of James Bridle, “systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale.”

YouTube’s reputation has taken a beating.

The Twitter troubles

Twitter also has a great many skeletons in the closet.

A huge number of the counted Twitter users are duplicate, bot, fake or purchased accounts.

Twitter content includes violence, pornography and hate speech, most of which does not violate Twitter’s policies and is allowed to remain. Porn is aggressively hawked on Twitter with direct-message spam and linkbait.

As with Facebook, Twitter is a major go-to network for state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

And while Twitter appears to work hard to shut down hate speech, harassment and trolls, it still maintains a reputation for such problems.

Do you really want to be associated with all this?

Keep your distance

Let me be very clear: My point isn’t that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are bad. And I’m not saying that it’s impossible to function on these networks without encountering the worst elements.

What I am saying is this: Events this week prove that a social network’s public reputation can sour so suddenly and so thoroughly that, if you’re active on that network, it rubs off on you and damages the reputation of you or your company.

That’s why Musk, Tesla and SpaceX joined the #DeleteFacebook trend.

Facebook’s sudden turn changes my standing advice for how to operate on the social networks.

In the past, I would have advised professionals and companies to go all in on the social networks. Build an active presence. Engage. Commit. Become part of the communities.

This is no longer my advice. We’ve now learned that a social network’s reputation can be tainted overnight, and association with that network can hurt you.

The new imperative is to build your own social networks. Re-embrace older technologies that keep you in control of the access you have to fans, customers, colleagues and the public.

Favor the content subscription model. Pour your energies and budgets into email newsletters, blogs with RSS feeds and podcasts.

Move the conversations you have with the public from the social networks to your own networks.

Each of these models enables you to build sticky lists of people who voluntarily choose to interact with you, and who — because these technologies do not involve algorithmic sorting shell games — can actually see everything you post.

Don’t delete your social accounts right away (except maybe for Facebook). Instead, use them for as long as you can to drive traffic to your newsletters, blogs and podcasts.

And when the social networks’ reputations take a turn into the gutter, you can pull the plug knowing that you’ve invested in social content systems that you own and control.

Musk deleted his companies’ Facebook pages. One day you might need to protect your own reputation, and your company’s, by doing the same.

The time to prepare for this eventuality is now.


This article was originally published on the IDG Network: Computer World by Mike Elgan and can be accessed here.
Image source: ThinkStock