George Orwell’s omnipresent Big Brother, which he predicted in his book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1949, may have already become a reality. And we may already be glimpsing the vision of John the Apostle in the Book of Revelation about every person in the world needing “the Mark of the Beast” to be able to buy or sell anything.
These days, every time I go online to seek information on a subject, say, gout, I subsequently and invariably receive a stream of unsolicited information on products and services related to gout/purine/uric acid with an accompanying sales pitch.
Obviously, my name and personal information are contained in a humongous database and my online search on gout automatically triggers a process that kicks off a response from concerned marketing firms with whom my name and data have been shared.
It is common knowledge that companies, from banks to insurance firms to consumer products marketers, routinely share — in fact, sell — customer information to other firms, unless the subjects specifically prohibit such a sharing.
But that kind of sharing is small-time compared to the humongous online database generated and controlled by a Big Brother kind of entity to which we, as consumers, have unwittingly — even willingly — given access to some of the most intimate insights into our lives.
The result is that this equivalent of Orwell’s omnipresent eavesdropper is able to monitor our every move — or our every material need — and is able to translate that into a marketing opportunity for its business customers/subscribers. Whenever we buy or sell anything, and whatever activity we may engage in online, the information is fed into that ever expanding file in which we are indexed.
Who or which would that omnipresent entity be that has such access to the personal information of billions of people in the world? It is social media.
There are several existing social media platforms, but the biggest Big Brother of them all is Facebook, a company founded by a high-tech genius named Mark Zuckerberg. As of 2017, Facebook had 2.2 billion active users.
In effect, billions of Facebook users (some of them fanatics) bear the Mark of Zuckerberg. Isn’t this eerily similar to the Mark of the Beast?
Facebook is particularly popular among Filipinos.
The Philippines may be trailing other countries on such key factors as the economy, business and industry, tourism, culture, sports, the arts and technology, but we Pinoys are said to be the World’s Number One in terms of Facebook usage. This is according to a report of the social media management platform, Hootsuite, and We Are Social Ltd., a consultancy based in the United Kingdom
I must confess to being a Facebook user, although I do not share too much information about myself. I regularly post my newspaper column and often kibitz on the conversations of friends, and occasionally, let loose expressions of outrage over social and political ills. And, oh yes, I often brag about my grandchildren. Otherwise, for a Facebook user, I consider myself a relatively private person.
There are some obvious reasons for the popularity of Facebook among our people. Our extended family system, coupled with the Pinoy Diaspora, has found in Facebook a beautiful tie that binds us across time and distance. The other reason is our inherent desire to socialize — even the most reticent among us — with the added advantage that Facebook allows us to be a joiner without the inconvenience of actual physical contact.
And, most of all, to paraphrase the lyrics of the song, Roses and Lollipops, it is because “We try acting grown-ups, but as a rule, we’re all little children…” Like kids, we like to tell about our joys and our pains. We like to greet others and to be greeted in return. And we love pictures of ourselves and those close to us.
Even our lovable habit of offering to share food with anyone who sees us eating (“Kain tayo!”), finds social media expression in the way we take a photograph of our favorite dish and post it online before proceeding to consume it.
We willingly share our personal information and make it public through social media in any number of ways. Heart-warming. Trusting. Innocent. Funny. Naughty. Naïve. Proud. Boastful. Ridiculous. Uncouth. Tragic.
Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who killed 17 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida posted his inner demons on social media. Tragically, no one took it seriously enough to intervene.
Facebook’s terms of usage list clearly enough the way information that we post will be shared, including sharing it with companies that market products and services — as well as specialist groups that promote politicians. But most of us don’t bother with such details.
Which brings me to the current furor in the United States over the way the personal information of 50 million Facebook users had been used to get candidate Donald Trump elected president.
In a move so reminiscent of the antics of the Philippine legislature, there are calls for an inquiry on Capitol Hill to get to the bottom of this. Actually, the use of the Internet and of insights on online users for political purposes isn’t new.
When senator Barack Obama first ran for president, his campaign team is said to have put the Internet to astonishingly effective use, not only for political propaganda but also for fund-raising.
The presidential campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte is also said to have been boosted by social media, with Facebook executives suspected to have had a hand in it.
But what riles political and media observers, as well as average Americans, is the way the personal information of the 50 million US Facebook users had been tweaked by a Russian-American techie, Aleksander Kogan, to extract in-depth insights on them without their permission, and how these insights were used for the Trump campaign by Cambridge Analytica, a British firm which had eventual Trump adviser Steve Bannon as a vice-president.
The situation becomes fuzzier with the reported involvement of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, who had hacked the e-mails of the Democrats and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Thus, the suspected involvement of the Russians in connection with its interference in the US presidential election.
There is a growing demand to put Zuckerberg on the carpet, based on the principle of command responsibility, because his company allowed “bad actors” to exploit the personal information of the 50 million Americans, not simply enabling one presidential candidate to win but also, quite possibly, allowing Vladimir Putin’s techies to throw America’s digital system off kilter.
How all of these straws get woven into one sinister plot, if at all, is up in the air. But one thing is certain, the red flag has been raised over the trustworthiness of Facebook as a depository of insights into private lives, not just in America but in the rest of the world, as well.
In an interview with CNN, Zuckerberg admitted being concerned enough to concede that some kind of regulation of social media might be necessary.
But whatever regulatory measures might be put in place, there will always be those who will find a loophole in them for less than benign purposes.
My own advice to fellow Facebook users is, keep your innermost secrets to yourselves. Don’t post them.
However, you can go right ahead and keep posting your favorite dishes. And brag about your grandkids.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.