MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's not really a surprise that people's personal data on Facebook was gathered and sold and spread around. Most people have known for quite some time now that our information online is far from secure. But the recent news about Cambridge Analytica getting millions of people's information seems to have hit a nerve.
We wanted to get some perspective on this, so we've called Siva Vaidhyanathan. He is a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, and he's with us now. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Thank you, Michel. It's good to talk to you.
MARTIN: Well, this has sparked an outcry and some calls to #DeleteFacebook. Do you think this is a real thing?
VAIDHYANATHAN: I think it's a thing among an elite strata of Twitter users. I don't think it's going to turn into a mass movement. Nor do I necessarily think it should. You know, people who study social media, people who do data science, privacy advocates, even the Federal Trade Commission - we've all known about this practice that Facebook has had since about 2010.
You know, since about 2010, Facebook has been sort of promiscuously and notoriously duplicitous and irresponsible with our data. Now, people are upset about it, and they should be, but they should have been upset about it then, too. And some of us were. But nobody was paying attention because Facebook was this shiny, happy, new company.
MARTIN: As you're suggesting that this has been an open secret for years, is there something about this episode, though, that feels different to you?
VAIDHYANATHAN: Oh, it feels different in terms of the public awareness. You know, I think that's a major change. And the fact that there seems to be growing dissatisfaction with Facebook - that's been building since the 2016 election when it was pretty clear that President Trump had exploited Facebook successfully. But that was accompanied by serious propaganda efforts, disinformation and misinformation efforts from certain agents coming out of Russia, right? Facebook is just barely coming to terms with that. But I think there's public awareness that I wish had been around before the damage was done.
MARTIN: So you're saying you think there is something about this episode that's hitting a nerve. You know, why now is this the episode that is getting all this attention?
VAIDHYANATHAN: Well, I think there's a bit of spy novel (laughter) to this whole latest episode, right? Cambridge Analytica itself is this sort of secretive front company that is controlled by billionaire genius Robert Mercer. And Steve Bannon, you know, was on the board. And the people who run Cambridge Analytica seem to brag about their ability to manipulate minds. The spy novel elements of it are very attractive, right? Here's an actual narrative, an actual story for people to get shocked about.
MARTIN: I think people are probably getting the clue right now that you are a bit of a Facebook critic.
VAIDHYANATHAN: (Laughter) Yes.
MARTIN: You have a book coming out soon called "Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us And Undermines Democracy." But I do want to ask if you think that this issue is unique to Facebook.
VAIDHYANATHAN: It's unique to Facebook because Facebook is so pervasive, right? Two-point-two billion people use Facebook every month around the world. That is a tremendous amount of power. It's cultural power. It's intellectual power. It's political power. It's financial power. It's an incredibly important part of people's lives around the world.
MARTIN: Well, that - yeah, that kind of leads to the question I was going to conclude with. Is there anything that people can do if they are upset about this? If they are worried about their privacy being invaded or if they don't like the uses to which their - this information has been put, is there anything people can do? Can they...
MARTIN: ...Delete their profiles?
VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah. I mean, we could delete our profiles. A few hundred thousand Americans delete their profiles, doesn't matter because, you know, a few hundred thousand people in India just signed up for Facebook. So that's not going to hurt Facebook. But you should delete your Facebook profile if Facebook puts you in a bad mood, if it distracts you at work, if you're getting into nasty arguments with your uncle. You know, those are reasons to get off of Facebook.
But don't get off of Facebook because you think it's going to make a difference to Facebook or to the world. If you have a problem with how Facebook has misled us, abused our privileges, abused our relationship with them, we need to use the instruments of regulation to curb its power. So if we act as citizens, we have a chance. If we act as Facebook users, we have no chance.
MARTIN: That's Siva Vaidhyanathan. He is a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. Professor, thanks so much for speaking with us.
VAIDHYANATHAN: Thank you, Michel. This was a pleasure.
MARTIN: In a statement today, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a breach of trust, quote, "between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it," unquote.
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