From the publisher | May 16, 2018

The antisocial network

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc

Last year two of us on the Messenger editorial team led a workshop on fake news. While listing tips on how to be safer online, I mentioned the tactics of Cambridge Analytica. Don’t take any of those quizzes on Facebook, I said.

That was a shock to many of the people in the room. Those quizzes seem like harmless fun. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about their psychological traits?

In late 2016, Cambridge Analytica was beginning to make news for its shadow marketing to individuals. From just a few data points about an individual, the company was able to extrapolate a lot of information. From there, the company could target the individual with “dark posts,” online ads customized to manipulate and influence the recipient. For example, a person marked by neuroticism would be sent an ad with a threatening image.

What surprised me was the way this then little-known company had managed to influence major political activities in both the US and the UK. What didn’t surprise me was the source of the valuable data: Facebook.

Facebook knows what you searched for on the Internet, how long your phone conversations were, and what 10 albums changed your life. It knows everything you’ve told it, everything your friends have told it, and everything you didn’t tell it directly but unwittingly allowed it to know. Using Facebook is free, which means the valuable product being sold is us.

What about the Church of the Brethren Facebook page? Whatever questions there may be about Facebook, you can be sure that the church’s use of the social network is for good. The communication team posts on Facebook to report news, share articles, lift up prayers, observe key days in the church year, and generally keep the church family connected. We don’t have the time or inclination to go looking for questionable information about our readers.

But a few things we do know: The stories that got the most engagement in recent weeks were about school shootings and the church’s response. Readers also celebrated news of the release of kidnapped girls in Nigeria. And over the last few months, the most popular post by far was the Christmas message on Dec. 24, which reached more than 23,000 people and garnered 2,232 likes, comments, and shares.

That is, this social networking tool can still be a channel for good news. But let’s be wise as serpents. Let’s be newly aware that collective naivete about our online activities has serious consequences in the real world.

Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.