Should we be concerned about our Facebook presence?
Facebook has been all over the news in the last few months, defending itself against mishandling of user data as well as bias in the type of content it favors in its algorithms.
This may lead to some questions of how we should regard and/or use this huge social media platform, a large part of the Online Mission Field.
While we continue to encourage Adventists to spread the Gospel over any social media, to share and support positive, help content and delve into spiritual topics, and even to start online Bible studies or groups, there are always best practices to consider.
But even while following best practices, Facebook could still cause your posts to be buried by their algorithm, or you might find yourself feeling bombarded by strangely-accurate online ads.
But is that a reason to leave Facebook? Is that a reason to stay silent? In most cases, we don’t think so.
There are issues to consider, as well as things we can do to keep our personal information as safe as possible and to conduct ourselves conscientiously. Overall, however, our opportunities for online mission work for individuals, groups, churches, schools, and ministries remain.
In addition, if you’re concerned about the security of your personal information and what risks might be involved from maintaining activity on Facebook, especially with a spiritual focus, here are a few thoughts:
What’s happening with my personal data?
As you may have heard from various news channels, Cambridge Analytica came under fire for mishandling Facebook user data with Facebook’s permission. The data ended up being allegedly used by advertisers during political election seasons to create super-targeted advertising meant to influence voter opinion.
And that’s not all. Discussions are ongoing as to how far this user data went—Was it shared to other companies? What are they using it for?
While the best anyone can do at this point is make educated guesses, here’s the bottom line—If yours or anyone else’s user data is retained by a firm like Cambridge Analytica or any other research entity, it’s likely used for marketing purposes.
The better they know your behavior, the easier it is to sell to you.
Knowing a faceless entity out there might have personal information about you is indeed unsettling. That’s why you’ll find piles of advice on what to share or not to share online, in order to prevent identity theft, predatory targeting, etc.
However, just by being online, personal data is collected minute by minute through our location data, browsing habits, search histories, clicks, downloads, Likes, Shares, etc.
But before we get too paranoid, remember that the most common use for all this data is so marketers can better know how to advertise to you. They may not even know your name, address or phone number, but they know that your IP address likes to shoe shop on Zappos.com, share and comment on cat videos, or discuss certain topics on Quora or reddit. (Read more here.)
If a platform is free to use, like Facebook, advertising is footing the bill. And for those advertisers to get the most bang for their buck, they’re going to use the most targeted, intuitive marketing strategies possible to maximize sales. And that means knowing more about what their audience values.
Truth be told, it’s not entirely different offline. Companies track consumer habits everywhere from the grocery store to Home Depot to your local pharmacy. Ads in the most innocent of places are built upon Big Data in order to convince you to buy.
While there may be a time or two when you feel a bit violated after an accidental click or unintentional social media “rabbithole” can result in a few sponsored posts you’d rather not see or have associated with you, at least we still have the free agency to choose not to click on that ad and scroll right past. (Advertisers will eventually notice that, too.)
What precautions can I take?
Even so, it’s never a bad idea to be extra savvy in how you represent yourself online. You can be selective about the social platforms you participate in, and set both your browser’s and your social profiles’ privacy settings conservatively.
You can also put extra care into how much you share about your preferences in sports, politics, spirituality, business or other hotly debated topics, and whether or not you draw attention to your travels, your family play-by-plays, your big purchases, etc.
There are also browser extensions and apps that can block adware, pop-ups, and detect some website trackers (Avast, AdBlock, Privacy Badger, Ghostery, etc.).
All in all, the Center for Online Evangelism recommends we always be conscientious about how we continuously represent ourselves, our families, and our communities online. We can’t tell everyone exactly what to share or not to share, as every individual has their own priorities, sensitivities, and life situations. All we can do is promote proven best practices and keep you aware of what could be amazing opportunities as well as (and sometimes simultaneously) considerable threats in the online world.
When it comes to Facebook, do keep up with news reports from your trusted channels. The issues about privacy, user data, bias, and algorithms will likely be ongoing discussions.
But as Christians actively spreading the Gospel to every nation, kindred and tribe, why not keep right on connecting, discussing, promoting, helping and sharing on Facebook right up until Jesus comes, or we’re booted from the platform. Whichever happens first.