In 2010, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel declared Nov. 17 to be National Facebook Unfriend Day and encouraged people to “tidy up” the casual acquaintances and creepy strangers clogging up their newsfeeds. While this unofficial holiday started as a joke, in the almost-decade since its inception, curating one’s social media feed may now be less a matter of convenience and more a matter of personal—and even national—security.
In 2015, The Guardian's Henry Davies first broke the story that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was illegally mining data from millions of Facebook profiles—collecting information ranging from users' birthdays and liked pages to even their current locations. The story was mostly dismissed at first. Most social media users subscribe to the idea that surrendering a certain amount of privacy is the cost of using these platforms.
Cambridge Analytica's data collection method was simple: create an unassuming app on Facebook's platform masquerading as an academic survey about user's lives. However, buried within the app's fine print was the caveat that users were consenting to share not only their own information, but that of everyone in their social networks. As such, a few thousand survey-takers sold out literally millions of their “friends.”
In 2018, the full extent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed when Facebook confirmed that over 80 million accounts had been compromised—nearly 50 million more than Cambridge Analytica first admitted to—and the data had been used to curate targeted political ads to benefit the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump presidential campaigns during the 2016 election season. Cambridge Analytica, however, was not the only threat posed by our online connections.
In the course of investigating foreign interference with the 2016 election, Facebook admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017 that approximately 126 million Americans saw fake political ads and posts sponsored by Russian-linked accounts during the 2016 election cycle. The posts played on divisive issues like LGBT rights, gun control and immigration policy. The Russian accounts posed as political action pages, or even individuals, on both Facebook and Twitter, amplifying divisive messages and spreading false information with the ultimate goal of further polarizing the country's sociopolitical spheres. By all accounts, it worked—and government agencies have already reported that similar tactics could be used in next year's elections as well.
Most social media platforms no longer resemble what the initial users originally signed up for. Longtime users might remember Myspace, and its simple slogan “A place for friends,” almost wistfully—a now-defunct platform that was once full of amateur HTML coding and “Top 8 friends” lists, void of overt corporate and political influence. Facebook's changed its slogan earlier this year, seemingly in response to its myriad controversies, to “The future is private.” But by contrast, and as if to illustrate how recklessly Facebook has operated with our collective online identities, its internal motto used to be: “Move fast and break things.” It's hard to look at that message in hindsight and not think those broken things might now include our private interactions, national discourse and even our electoral system. It's time to find that unfriend button.