Facebook is an information parasite

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The social media giant Facebook has wiggled its way, like a parasitic worm, into Americans’ daily lives. We all clicked to approve the user agreement. We all allowed this to happen. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to tell Facebook and others to butt out of our lives.

Every time users check Facebook to laugh at a dog video, see what old friends are up to, or comment on someone’s political rant, they help build the site’s marketing empire. Nobody forced users to share this information.

Facebook is watching and collecting valuable data on our habits, lifestyles, restaurant choices, political leanings and consumer preferences — all so it can be sold for profit. This massive data trove is how Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg became one of the world’s top billionaires. Now Facebook must answer questions about how a private company, Cambridge Analytica, was able to cull information from more than 50 million users to help Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Facebook must own up to its nefarious practices, but users also bear responsibility for letting themselves be lulled into thinking that the app is just a bunch of friends keeping in touch online.

Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and other major social media apps are not our friends. Their goal is to coax you into giving up your privacy. They turn your personal information into data that can be bundled with that of other users to sell to advertisers or others willing to pay the price. The value of this information can be immense.

Cambridge Analytica is a political data firm founded by Steve Bannon, a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump, and conservative donor Robert Mercer. The firm used Facebook data to identify users’ political preferences and influence their behavior, according to The New York Times and The Observer of London.

That was one of many tools Bannon and others, including Russia, accessed to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential vote in Trump’s favor. Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is still under investigation, but there’s no question that Facebook played a central role in manipulating American voters.

Facebook users were never advised that their data was harvested by Bannon. As Facebook acknowledged, this was not a data breach. Users willingly handed over their data to Facebook, which then handed it over to others without following up on how the data would be used.

Congress has every reason to demand answers from Zuckerberg about Facebook’s role in subverting American democracy. But, ultimately, it’ll be up to all who use Facebook and other social media apps to smarten up and stop being so generous with our personal information.

So the next time an ad pops up trying to sell you camping equipment right after you’ve posted about your camping vacation, that’s the warning. Big Brother is watching.

—The editorial board of the St. Louis Post Dispatch

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