What's up with the prying Facebook memes?
How data mining tells stories about us in order to spread disinformation
Every week on Story Cauldron I examine places where storytelling appears in our everyday lives. In this week’s issue, I look at the practice of ‘data mining,’ where seemingly innocent social media posts are actually digital traps collecting information. While most of the time storytelling is a positive thing, in this case, these sites trick you into telling your personal story. Let’s look at how and why this happens, and what they may be trying to achieve.
Has your Facebook feed been filled with random memes asking seemingly pointless questions, all with thousands or even millions of responses? For me, I run into several of these wacky things every day. Here are three real-life examples that I’ve encountered this week:
Really? Am I going to write about some of the most pointless content on the Internet in Fall 2021? Why yes I am. Because these things aren’t just dumb, but they can be a real problem down the road.
Curious? Read the rest of this article. I’ll wait. 🤣
Getting serious now…
While the questions could be about anything, there are a few things these posts have in common:
The sender is typically a page you don’t follow
The post has a massive number of likes and responses
At least one of your friends has replied
When these things first started popping up, people thought they were fishing for information that could be used to guess your password. What some people think is going on is much less obvious—and much more dangerous. And that has to do with a process called data mining.
“Big Data” is Big Brother
Before we talk about those Facebook posts, let’s take a step back.
It’s important to acknowledge that much of what you do every day is being recorded and compiled—even without the so-called ‘Bill Gates microchip’ (I’m sure that one day I’ll get into conspiracy theories, but today isn’t that day).
Do you have a rewards card with a grocery store? They’re watching what you purchase and when you shop. Every time you open an email, the person or business sending it could be tracking whether or not you open it. Social media platforms document the posts you read (or even linger on), what you react to, and whose posts you comment on.
Already that’s a lot—and it’s on top of the data that Amazon, Apple, and Google know about you because of your search history, your smartwatch and phone activity, and any other smart devices from your Alexa to your Nest to your Roomba. (A while back I wrote a piece about smart devices if that's your jam.)
While you might not think anyone cares if you looked cross-eyed at a weird ad, or went to get tacos for lunch, the truth is, someone does care. That someone is Big Data, a set of interconnected databases fed by the big corporate platforms that include more information about you than you might ever imagine.
As you live your life under this constant monitoring, a story about you will begin to emerge. Each time you use your phone, check your email, tweet, or hang out with other people with smart devices, what companies know about you gets increasingly detailed. They know how many people live in your house, whether or not you have pets, which shows you watch, and who your friends are. Each interaction is in itself tiny, but they add up.
Think of the data collected about you as the way an artist might draw an object by sketching out the subject in pencil lightly, then adding more lines, drawing the background, adding shadows, and finally finishing it up in ink. Each pass adds more details that tell the viewer they’re looking at a drawing of flowers and not a bowl of fruit, and then what kind of flowers they are, and whether they’re in a garden or a vase, and so on.
Even if you stay off social media, a digital story about you exists, and it’s used by marketers and social media to determine whether to show you ads for baby blankets or rock climbing equipment because they know what you are most likely to buy.
And while you may not care too much about getting tailored ads, there is an ugly underbelly to data collection that you should very much care about.
Disinformation wears many disguises
The problem with information databases is that the data can be used for much more than just tailoring ads to your preferences.
Facebook’s algorithm decides which business and friends’ posts to display, as well as which sponsored content to show you. It determines whether you will care more about a story about COVID vaccinations, or what the government is up to, or crime in your neighborhood.
Facebook says they just want to show you what they think you want to see, but anyone on the platform for any length of time knows that’s not true. Facebook is all about making money and they have demonstrated they don’t care how that ad spend is used. So when someone wants to run sponsored ads before an election or to influence popular opinion about a country’s leadership or policies, Facebook is happy to take their money, no matter the content.
And that content uses the algorithm not to change your mind but subtly nudge you in one direction or another. In other words, it shows you what you are likely to believe, and then pushes a little harder.
Disinformation isn’t accidental, and it isn’t always obvious. While you might notice it in a news article, nowadays it’s more likely to enter your feed as a silly animal video or meme, something that contains a kernel of truth and that you might take at face value. Then again, it might be in the form of angry or insensitive comments. Believe it or not, some of those seemingly unhinged ‘Karens’ yelling at everyone may not be a real person. They appear out of nowhere, get everyone riled up, and then *poof!* they’re gone. The point is, they get people fired up, and that isn’t accidental.
And while disinformation is similar to propaganda in its goals, I’d argue that it’s more dangerous because it’s so hard to recognize, and almost impossible to trace back to a real source.
The problem with those Facebook posts
So let’s get back to those weird question posts and memes on Facebook that the algorithm pushes relentlessly into your feed even though none of your friends are sharing them.
When you see those silly questions like, “who’s your favorite band?” or “what was your first car?” what are they doing? Taking a poll? Building community?
Nope. They’re taking tiny snapshots that allow the people behind them to build a digital story about you that is specific to Facebook. Once you’ve answered enough of them, they’ll have a pretty good idea about where you live, your age, gender, and race, who you voted for, what your stance is on vaccination, your religion, and more.
From there, they can fill your feed with sponsored content that they think will make you angry enough to click on a website, or target you with more memes and jokes designed to reinforce your beliefs and your dislike of people who don’t believe the same things you do. In other words, they’re reinforcing the bubble that you live in.
And this is all fine with Facebook because that’s how the platform makes its money as well. As Heather Cox Richardson pointed out in her newsletter Letters from an American on Oct. 23, 2021:
People often make the mistake of thinking that Facebook profits from the advertising it sells to users, but in fact the system works the opposite way. A media company profits from packaging users to sell to advertisers. Facebook has sliced and diced its users so that it can sell us with pinpoint accuracy to political interests eager to divide us or drive our votes.
And here’s the point: do you really want to be manipulated by strangers on Facebook? I sure as hell don’t.
And as we’ve heard reported in the New York Times and other news sources, popular social media platforms (especially Facebook) are doing little to stem the flow of this disinformation, making it difficult to run fair elections, control the progress of the pandemic, and even get out the truth about flight cancelations.
For a deeper dive into the disinformation and data-mining schemes on Facebook, I encourage you to take a look at this insightful piece called, “Something Weird is Happening on Facebook.” They dive deeper into these creepy memes and try to figure out what might be going on.
Don’t fall for the traps
Stop sleazy third-party bot farms and other sites that are putting out these garbage memes. While you can’t curtail all data mining, you can definitely make it harder for these shady sites that are nothing more than scammers out to ruin your day.
Don’t share information with strangers or websites. This includes the data mining posts mentioned above, but also quizzes, surveys, games, and other efforts to get you to answer questions about yourself.
When you see data mining posts on Facebook, call them out. The Facebook algorithm now shows friends your responses to various posts. So use that in your favor. Reply to the threads with “this is data mining—don’t reply to this.” Eventually, the concept will go viral as more people will become aware of it, and maybe these things will go away.
Share this article. When people understand what data mining is, they are less likely to fall for it, and therefore less likely to ultimately see disinformation in their feeds or get scammed in other ways.
At the end of the day, it’s often impossible to know who’s behind various disinformation campaigns or what their goals might be. What I know is that I hate to be played, especially when I don’t even know who’s doing it.
So join me and just say no to these data mining memes (and whatever the next thing is down the road).
[edited 23 Oct 21 to add quote from Heather Cox Richardson.]
Thank you for reading this week’s Story Cauldron. If you found this article useful, please consider subscribing for more information about storytelling.
And be on the lookout for my new YA urban fantasy novel, The Boy Who Can Taste Color, which I’m serializing on Substack. Chapter one will be available for free to all subscribers this coming Friday!