How to practice safe social in the age of fake news

We all like to believe it only happens to other people. We’d never fall for such utter nonsense. We’re better and savvier than that. And that’s exactly why, despite the congressional and most recent EU investigation, the global outrage over privacy issues, and GDPR going into effect this week, less than 9 percent of Americans actually #deletedFacebook. So we continue to scroll through our platforms in blissful ignorance, pointing our fingers at those who got “duped” during the elections.

Well, think again. As someone who has been working in data, marketing, and ad tech for more than a decade, I’m a pretty discerning consumer. I’m an ultra liberal news junkie, I live in New York City, and donate to the ASPCA. And yet I became a prime target for fake news.

What Facebook’s algorithm knows about me, among many other things, is that I binge on political satire every morning while catching up on the late night rhetoric. I also watch the majority of animal videos I come across in my newsfeed (because they make me happy) and follow a range of animal pages for support or entertainment.

The idea of a trade war with China alarms me, and my browsing history would confirm that I’ve been researching its effects extensively.

So when I started stumbling upon images of caged, tortured and mutilated dogs in my newsfeed, I was appalled. My first reaction was to scroll past them as quickly as I could, while secretly hating the person who caused such imagery to inundate my feed. While I had no desire or intention to read the accompanying article, I knew it was there and I knew its headline mentioned China.

Over the next few days, a Groundhog’s Day cycle emerged, where the same piece popped up in my feed with increasing frequency. Surfacing from a variety of sources, it featured similar imagery with slight variations, including close-ups of tortured dogs. By now I was scrolling faster, both annoyed and disturbed, yet still very much picking up on the correlation to China.

Until, one morning this week, I woke up, encountered the same story, and suddenly realized it wasn’t linked to any reputable news outlets. And then, I slowly and deliberately began to unpack what I’ve been experiencing: inflammatory content that's directly targeted to my interests, with an escalating storyline that elicits a visceral reaction, loosely tied to a hot-button issue.

And that is when I was confronted with the reality of being targeted with propaganda: fake news designed to manipulate my opinions. The idea that my own thoughts, interests, likes and weaknesses are actively used to influence my decisions at the polls or in the malls was sickening.

Now, I’m not saying we should delete Facebook, go back to the dark ages, and crawl under a rock. What we need to do is practice “safe social” to ensure we don’t contract any beliefs or attitudes that don’t belong to us, and then inadvertently pass them to others, infecting our entire friend group, and their friends. The danger here is that in thinking we’re immune from propaganda tactics, we drop our guard and the next thing you know, our whole global politics landscape will have shifted.

Here’s how you can practice “safe social” in three steps:

  1. Update your privacy settings and understand and control all the information you share and with whom. Here are a few steps on how to do that.

  2. Don’t friend anyone on Facebook that you don’t know in real life. In fact, take the time to go through your entire feed and purge anything that doesn't bring you joy -- Marie Kondo style. If you see a profile you don’t recognize, they don’t belong in your friend list. Remember, every contact you keep leaves a footprint on the algorithm.

  3. Review all the apps and pages you associate with and unfollow them if they don’t provide you with relevant and valuable content.

In the unfortunate event that you’ve been infected with propaganda, here are some of the symptoms that will help you diagnose that you are being targeted. First, look out for multiple and frequent appearance of the same news-mimicking storyline, seemingly from different outlets in your newsfeed. Pay extra attention especially if you are experiencing a strong visceral reaction to that story, either positive or negative. Finally, check the story against a reputable journalistic outlet, if you can’t find a match, you can conclude that you are the recipient of fake news. And there is no insurance to cover that.

We live in a world where we need to protect our brain just like we do our physical bodies. We need to be incredibly vigilant and critical of any abnormalities in our newsfeeds. And we need to understand that we are now being targeted based on over 96 data points. This allows intelligent algorithms to paint a picture of us that’s more accurate than any brain scan. Using data and neuroscience, our attention and decision-making are being harvested with maximum impact and minimum red flags.

In short, we find ourselves at a time where our minds, pockets, and votes are being influenced using our own humanity against us.   

Now that you’ve taken the proper steps to practice “safe social” while keeping you and your friends propaganda-free, go enjoy all the platforms and scroll, tap and like as you wish. That is until Facebook’s API changes again.