Multiple people I know are convinced that Facebook is listening to their phone calls and in-person conversations. Call it the Microphone Myth. But why do these myths continue to persist despite there being no hard evidence?
People are paranoid about Facebook, but they don’t know where to put that paranoia. Conspiracy theories are the inevitable result.
Believers of the Microphone Myth point to mostly coincidental ads they’ve seen as evidence. You’ve heard the stories: someone is talking about, say, needing a weed whacker on the phone, only to see a weed whacker ad in their Facebook timeline a few minutes later. Clearly Facebook is listening to your microphone!
It isn’t true . Your data bill would be much higher, and your battery life much worse, if Facebook was recording all your conversations.
But try to convince someone of this and you’ll hit a brick wall. There’s a great episode of the Reply All podcast that’s basically just the hosts trying to do that, convince people that Facebook isn’t listening to all their conversations. The hosts fail repeatedly.
The thing is, it wouldn’t much matter. Facebook has so much information about you that they don’t need to listen to your conversations to know what you want. They already knew you wanted a weed whacker, and would have shown you that ad whether you expressed the thought out loud or not.
Facebook turns your activity on the site into a map of your mind, and then uses that map to sell you stuff. And they don’t need to listen to your conversations to do it.
Conspiracy Theories Are Comforting
Back to the Microphone Myth: why does it persist? Because it’s a simple story. It’s comprehensible. You say something out loud, Facebook hears it, then you see an ad. Easy.
It’s counterintuitive, but conspiracy theories make the world less scary. The idea that some random guy could just kill President Kennedy on a whim is terrifying, on an existential level. It feels like no one is actually in charge, that the world is a swirling pool of chaos where anything could happen at any moment. In a weird way, it’s comforting to imagine the CIA did it—at least someone was in charge.
The BBC ran an article recently that explored our fascination with conspiracy theories. While they determined that there’s no one, simple answer for why some people are drawn to conspiracy theories, they did find that some “studies reveal that conspiracy theories help people make sense of the world when they feel out of control, are anxious or feel powerless if their needs are threatened.”
The idea that Facebook is listening to your conversations and showing relevant ads is at least a fear that’s easy to understand and easy to articulate. The reality is more complex, and considerably more opaque to most people—that Facebook is always watching as you scroll through the site, noticing that you linger just a few seconds longer to look at certain photos or products than others, building a complex algorithmic picture of what you think.
The idea that your online activity can be turned into data, and that data turned into an index of your wants and desires so accurate it can predict you want a weed whacker is harder to understand, and that can be a little overwhelming.
Facebook Exists To Harvest Your Data
The thing is, it’s true. Facebook isn’t just a social network that happens to monetize your private information; it’s built to monetize your information.
Facebook’s entire business model is about collecting that information, using it to advertise to you, and packaging it to make its partners able to advertise to you better. Your timeline, your Messenger conversations, the photos of babies you wish you didn’t see so often—all of it is used to the same end.
This isn’t news. Privacy advocates have been pointing this out for over a decade. People either ignored their advice, or decided that the utility they got from Facebook was worth this vague notion of privacy being invaded. Even in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this pattern will likely continue. The Microphone Myth is just one of the many little logical fallacies that help people continue to rationalize.
The other thing to note is that this behavior is by no means limited to just Facebook. Many companies do essentially the same thing. It’s very likely, for example, that Google knows even more about you than Facebook does.
It isn’t even limited to companies that show you ads: Netflix watches you constantly, and then uses the data they gather to make sure you stay on the site as long as possible. Web companies are always watching, and there’s probably not much you can do about it.
And the truth is, this behavior is not limited to tech companies and really isn’t a new thing at all. While technology has certainly made it easier, faster, and more accurate to gather and package information about people, the same basic technique has been used by television, direct mail marketers, retail stores, you name it. Hell, every time you swipe that grocery store loyalty card to get those sweet discounts, they’re collecting information on what you buy, where you live, when you shop, what types of products you buy together, and—if you’re also using a debit card, credit card, or online payment system—they tie that in as well and can tell even more about you.
And of course, none of this means Facebook (or any of those other companies) isn’t useful. It has all kinds of good uses. It doesn’t mean that removing Facebook from your life is a good idea, either (it might not even be possible).
But if you’re going to use Facebook and other services like it, you might as well see it for what it is: a machine built specifically to collect information about you, and then sell that information to advertisers.
Maybe none of this is news to you; maybe it is. But if we as a society are going to be using these services and making decisions about how to respond to their practices, we owe it to ourselves to keep our eyes open and talk accurately about what is actually happening.
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