Social Media Privacy: From a Personal to a National Issue

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According to the 2019 Digital Report, global Internet use has grown continuously. Today there are 4.39 billion internet users world-wide, 366 million (9%) more than in January 2018. And there are now 3.48 billion social media users on this planet, a total increase of 288 million (9 per cent) since January of last year. According to the most recent United Nations estimates, confirmed by Worldometers, the world’s population is currently 7.7 billion.

Social media in politics

Yes, you calculated it right. Almost half of the world uses the Internet, and a good portion of it uses social media. With such high numbers of social media users, more and more every day we should maintain at least an approximate conception of what this means for our very own safety, both at the personal and national level.

The upward trend of sharing personal information through social media calls for an urgent awareness of privacy and security issues. Given current realities, we might be well advised to wonder where is the red line that we should not cross when dealing with personal matters.  This question carries more weight than appears at first sight.

Let me walk you through some of the biggest issues regarding privacy on social media, or better yet, the thin borderline that separates the personal from the national in this case.  Personal stands for one’s engagement with friends and family through social media, posting pictures, locations, and sharing life events, while national refers to matters falling into the public sphere, such as: national security, every-day politics, propaganda, demonstrations, media and news, and any other form of engagement that in one way or another does require partial or full intervention on behalf of the state.

As personal as some personal data (all kinds of personal information that helps to identify a person) can be, when such information ends up being in the wrong hands, then undoubtedly we are dealing with something much greater than personal. Cases in point are the 2018 scandal when 50 million Facebook users suffered from a data breach, and when in the same year the data of some 800 million Facebook users were misused by Cambridge Analytica to enhance strategic communication during election campaigns.

Violating our privacy it is not the only thing that follows such a breach. Indeed, enormous national exposure and risk are at stake.

Public attacks, violent acts and social media

In March of this year, 51 people killed and 50 others injured were the fatal results of the terrorist attacks at two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. A part of this shooting was live streamed on Facebook by the perpetrator himself. Before Facebook managed to act and take it down, this terrifying video had over 4,000 views and had 200 users watching it live.

Last month, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern announced that the country will establish a team of investigators focused entirely on tackling online extremism, as a security measure that has emerged from these shootings.

Other criminal events include the 2017 live streaming of the Chicago incident in which four black young adults kidnapped and tortured a mentally disabled white male; the live streaming of a 12-year old girl’s suicide after a relative allegedly abused her; the 2017 incident in which an American woman who had taped her toddler to a wall and then live streamed it on Facebook; and the live streaming of the 2018 mass murder in Florida, U.S.

The abovementioned examples are mainly focused on live streaming of disturbing content, as a medium of transmitting or receiving live video and audio coverage to any audience all over the internet world without any censorship.

In addition, there are also phenomena that take place in social networks which directly affect the overall wellbeing of a given group of people or community.  Events such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks demonstrated the increasing power of social media during tragedies and emergency occurrences. Real time tweets on this attack were posted to the site at an estimated 70 such postings every five seconds.

Elections and social media

Turning online clicks into votes – this is more or less the consequence of political interference that has happened during political campaigns because social media companies have learned the personal preferences of individual citizens. Political beliefs expressed through social media, directly or not, created a situation in which social media companies can collect data and then manipulate data in ways that benefit one party or political figure.  All campaigns have taken advantage of social media to create lines of communication meant to achieve desired results.

The 2016 Brexit Campaign in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s victorious campaign in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 are the most illustrative cases of social media’s believed potential to have a colossal impact on major political events.

Cyberspace certainly has its own benefits. Citizens are closer than ever to contacting their elected official directly and holding them accountable. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have completely changed the ground rules under which campaigns are run and how political communication is done.

Presently, political protests can easily be mobilized through social media, but also on the flip-side of this reality governments can use algorithms to track down their opponents and take measures to intimidate or control them, or even remove them.

Acknowledging the two-sided effect of social media use, it seems that the most important challenge that global society faces today is creating a proper balance of social media privacy and its interaction with national interest and individual safety. Since regulating social media is a sensitive matter, because state institutions should not interfere with or in any form restrict freedom of speech, then this is a responsibility that weighs upon all of us.

Photo: Shutterstock

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