Facebook data scandal raises questions for students

By Kaitlyn Engen, Reporter

On April 10 and 11, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees to testify following a data-theft scandal that was exposed by the New York Times and The Guardian on March 17.

The reports initially said that 50 million Facebook users’ data was harvested by British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, a firm that uses purchased data for political campaigning purposes. This number was eventually updated to 87 million users.

Although Zuckerberg himself did not commit a crime, the Senate demanded answers to tough questions that could change the future of Facebook, data regulation, strategic communications (such as advertisements and campaign) and social media as a whole.   

For students on any social media, the scandal also raises a lot of questions—and for some great concern—for how their personal data is handled by large companies not just limited to Facebook.

The exposed data leak sparked a carefulness among students about what personal data they were putting online. Some have already changed their practices and habits around online activity to make their data as secure as possible, including turning on ad-blockers, putting thought into what is posted and reviewing privacy settings.      

“I knew most of the information was out there, I try to take the measures to keep it as secure as possible, and I am very cautious about what I put on there,” said EWU student Garrett Saiki, who uses Facebook for his business account.

Zuckerberg introduced modifications to the current privacy settings accessibilities to Facebook users that are to be put in place following the hearing. Theoretically, this would allow users to have better control over what data is obtained by Facebook and where it is going.

An embellishment of privacy settings did not satisfy some Congressional members, or some student social media users. The idea of imposing government regulations on large social media companies such as Facebook was another point brought into the dialogue.

Thirty-nine people who follow The Easterner on social media voiced their opinions on this debate through two polls: One on Facebook, and one on Twitter (to account for students who may have deleted their Facebook profiles). Students were asked: “Should large social media companies, like Facebook, have government regulations?”

The results were close for the 20 students that responded on Twitter, ending with 55 percent saying no to placing government regulations, and 45 percent saying yes.

As for the Facebook poll, the gap in opinion was larger, with 63 percent of the 19 respondents saying no, and 37 percent saying yes.

Saiki was one student that was for imposing more regulation on social media companies, but not necessarily from the government.

“I think the government listens in to a lot of stuff and has access to a lot of things that they don’t necessarily need the right to have access to,” Saiki said. “I think there should be a regulation overall on what information on what social media sites can mine from you and take, and it should be very transparent.”

Tassia Baker-Jackson, an EWU student who does not have a Facebook account, was against government regulation.

“They could control more of what you do and see. They could just push out straight propaganda at that point, and we don’t need that,” Baker-Jackson said.

The variation in student opinions could reflect the differences in what students use social media for, and how the recent happenings have changed or validated their perspectives on social media.

For example, some past users of Facebook have gone off the site (and possibly resorted to other sites, like Twitter) in fear of their data being stolen along with the other 87 million scandal victims.

For EWU students like Grace Pohl, who currently has a Facebook account, the testimonies have caused them to examine the fundamental purposes of social media in their own lives.

“Social media is connecting with people. That’s the concept of where social media came from,” Pohl said.

As the testimony outcomes unfold and Zuckerberg juggles his company’s shortcomings, many surfaced and yet-to-be-surfaced questions continue to circulate amid social media users and non users alike. The future for Facebook and social media in general may be just around the corner.