Grace Fitzgerald

Are we being watched? An analyses of the effects data collection have on the education system

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent.” (Malcolm X). The power the media holds over the persuasion of the public is arguably one of the most important topics to be discussed with the youth of today. Gen Z is a generation that has grown up surrounded by technology, learning through iPad, communicating through phones, and playing through computers. Gen Z are those born between the years 1998 and 2010 (Kharia, 2018), the generation that has been labelled “snowflakes” by the media and described to suffer from “phone boredom” (Khaira-Hanks, 2018). Yet, this is the generation that has seen new technology-based crimes, such as image-based sexual abuse, identity fraud online, and now the uncertainty surrounding how our online information is being used (Khaira-Hanks, 2018). There is a new public concern, which has been made more apparent in recent months surrounding how data is collected and used online. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the importance of modernizing our education system so that there is a better understanding of how our information is used online.

To understand why there should be more education about how people’s online presence is tracked and used, the topic of what online cookies is must be discussed. Google describes cookies as a small box of text at the bottom of your screen that tracks your preferences online (Google Terms & Conditions, 2021). Some examples of aspects that would be tracked by cookies are preferred language, what advertisements a person engages in online, and websites they visit. There are different types of cookies used by Google, functionality, privacy, personalization, security, and analytics (Google Terms & Conditions, 2021). The question arises of why people allow the use of cookies or engage in online behaviour at all if these conditions are made apparent to us when we use Google. A study completed by Karen Swan states that people who engage in online use, prefer building an online presence as it makes the experience online more satisfactory (Swan & Shih, 2019).

People’s online presence has been used to track consumers’ needs and target particular adverts towards people online based on their online information, however, where does this tracking of social media users’ online information stop? The Cambridge analytical case is an example of how social media users’ information is used for more than just targeted marketing campaigns. The case was described as “Facebook’s biggest ever data breach” (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018). The data analytical team that worked for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, began gathering information from over fifty million Facebook users’ profiles (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018). Facebook failed to not only notify the owners of these profiles that their personal information was being used but failed to attempt to recover this information (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018). This information was used to create a database on the US political voters and target them with personalized political adverts on social media platforms. This buying and selling of Facebook users’ personal information became a concern not only for the platform’s users but also a concern for the US government. The question of whether this method of collecting data on the public without consent and using it to target their political stance was entirely democratic was raised. In a meeting with Democratic lawmakers in 2019, Mark Zuckerberg was questioned on Facebook’s knowledge of the Cambridge analytical case, and at what point he was made aware of the case (Paul, 2019) Ocasio-Cortez questioned Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s lack of policing political advertising (Paul, 2019). Facebook is being accused of failing to comply with the legal obligation of the Data Protection Act of 1998, in a case being made against Google in the U.K by Milberg Law firm (Criddle, 2020). This case is a strong example of how social media users are unaware of how and when their online information is being collected and used.

Another example of how politics has not only used social media as a platform to gauge personal information about the users but also spread political regimes is the Rohingya Refuges versus Facebook case. Dozens of Rohingya refugees in the UK and USA are demanding compensation of £150 billion from Facebook for not policing and removing hate speech against the Rohingya people (Clayton, 2021). Muslim Rohingya people were targeted and murdered during the government crackdown in a majority Buddhist Myanmar in 2017 (Clayton, 2021). Facebook has been accused of not targeting online posts containing hate speech against the Rohingya people, which the refugees who are suing the social media platform ague encouraged violence and prejudice against them in Myanmar (Clayton, 2017).

Is there too much naivety from not only those who use social media but also those who design and own the platforms about how much power social media has on the public? Zuckerberg stated that Facebook has tried to keep people safe (Clayton, 2021), yet this is another example out of several in which Facebook has not monitored the media that is being shared on the platform.

Politics being so closely intertwined with social media can be argued to be one of the most powerful uses of social media. Not only does this allow people from different political ideologies and parties to communicate with a larger global community of people who share the same ideas, but it allows those in power to communicate to these communities. With such immediate access to communities worldwide, which as discussed above, have been proven to be targeted according to their beliefs, race, and religion, is there too much power being given to those with a large online presence? One of the first examples of political candidates using online adverts to promote themselves was Peter Vallone’s campaign in 1998 (Carrie Wong, 2018). Vallone was a New York City councilman running for governorship, he paid $100,000 for an online advert to be shown in the New York Times as an advert banner (Carrie Wong, 2018). This can be argued to be the first advert designed to target ascertain audience online, it used the aspect of the location of Vallone’s target voting group by putting it in the New York Times, as he was depending on votes from New Yorkers (Carrie Wong, 2018). The development of online advertising for political campaigns has become more invasive of people’s personal information. Carrie Wong states that online advertising has developed into micro-targeting advertising, as any candidate that uses Facebook can promise one message to a certain group of voters while running another ad with an opposite message to another group of people (Carrie Wong, 2018). This is known as dark advertising as the adverts are not posted anywhere for the general public to see, and it can be difficult to discover which message holds any truth (Carrie Wong, 2018). Marketing models have used the automated collection of the vast stream of electronic data from consumers to identify the subset of consumers who will likely respond to an ad (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2010).

Due to this increase in a micro-targeting technique used to advertise online, there has been a push for governments to increase the laws surrounding the online collection and distribution of users’ information (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2010). The Privacy Directive laws which are implemented in Europe affected three main sections of online advertising, cookies, web bugs, and clickstream data collection (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2010). The introduction of these laws saw the decrease of pop-up online adverts efficiency by 65 percent in Europe (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2010). This result was considering the internet users that did not click allow cookies when browsing the web (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2010). When a user allows cookies, it is considered that the user has allowed their online actions and information not only to be stored by the browser but also to be used to target them with advertisements. It can be argued that therefore the younger generations must be educated on how their information is stored online. Gen Z is using the internet more than any other generation before them, with 74 percent of them using their free time online, and spending an average of 8 hours a day online (“Generation Z Statistics -99firms”, 2021). However, there has been no change to the educational programs in schools, to inform young people about the internet. In a survey conducted by the National Cyber Security Alliance, Microsoft, and Zogby/463 it found that only half of the teachers surveyed out of a thousand felt that they were equipped with teaching students about online safety (Watters, 2011). While zero percent of teachers surveyed felt that there was adequate education about online safety in the school curriculum (Watters, 2011).

The lack of education surrounding online safety for the younger generations who are so active online can arguably be one of the biggest disservices that governments are committing towards these generations. Yes, there are terms and conditions on every website and there is an explanation to what cookies are when you click agree on websites, however, are parents, teachers, and the government being too naive when assuming that children and young adults are making themselves aware of these conditions? The question can be asked who is responsible for the safety of this new generation online? As discussed above governments see a problem arising related to internet users’ personal information being collected, as there have been laws introduced to protect them. However, it can be considered that these laws are not specific enough and not being policed as well as they should be, with cases such as the Cambridge Analytical and the Rohingya case going undetected for months after they have begun.

To conclude, the internet and social media has become a strong tool for advertising in recent years. This introduced a new form of media that has the power to persuade people, not longer just in consumer behavior but also in political voting. This targeted advertising online and lack of monitoring from social media platforms such as Facebook, has resulted in internet users having to filter through adverts and statements online that they consider untrue or untrustworthy. Teachers have stated that they do not think they are equipped to teach students about online safety, which includes the sharing of their information online. This leaves it up to students to educate themselves on a topic that arguably the US legal system is still trying to navigate, as they continue reviewing Mark Zuckerberg’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytical case. Owens and Lenhart state the internet is a great tool for education and to be connected to others (Owens & Lenhart, 2020), therefore, it can be considered unreasonable to expect the younger generation to limit their online activities to keep them safe. It arguably is more efficient to teach people how they can be safer online in regard to sharing information and to be aware that adverts can target online users for campaigns. This will give people tools that they can implement at their desire while still enjoying the benefits of the internet and social media.

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