Has social media compromised liberty?

Do we lose the right to privacy when we involve ourselves in social media? The obvious answer to this question is “of course not” and that should be the case, but is it?

Facebook, a business that started around 2004, has announced it has over half of all internet users in the world on it; in six years Twitter had over 100 million users. Recently, the US State Department asked Twitter not to carry out regular maintenance during the recent demonstrations in Iran as information was being disseminated through Twitter. A similar use was made of Facebook during the uprising in Egypt. Social media platforms on the face of it can be a profoundly pro-liberty force. John Stuart Mill wrote about liberty as freedom not only from coercion by the government but also from the constraints of social conventions, so is social media the answer?

Unfortunately, social media companies focus really on advertising. Google, for example, generates 23% of all US advertising revenue, more than twice that of all print media. The ever-increasing user base of social networking sites tends to require your name, date of birth, and in many cases education and employment details. Many identity thieves tend to hack their victim’s email accounts by simply using the personal information available from such sites and, for example, use the “Forget Password” facility or get access using spyware. Selling data to advertisers is lucrative and this is being done by social media companies and unscrupulous people.

Users of social media are not always careful which sites they go on: they don’t change passwords regularly, restrict access to their sites and/or use anti-virus software. The consequence is that data can be stolen from users and social media companies (and social media company’s records taken can be for millions of users). All this, and then there is the awful abuse of users who are bullied or exploited on social media. John Stuart Mill must be turning in his grave.

As Liberal Democrats, we must uphold liberty; the use of social media can be for good, but we must also protect the vulnerable. It’s a difficult balance between having a secure communication platform for people to use and ensuring liberty and protecting users against coercion. I don’t think that we can actually do it. Something has to give especially because the large social media providers are dragging their feet to appropriately monitor and control their sites.

Those who own social media sites want them open and widely used, to maximise their profit. Governments and people who want to control/exploit people will push to restrict or abuse such sites for their own benefit. It is arguable that companies like Facebook have pushed out the barriers of liberty, I feel they have only opened another front where we need to protect liberty and coercion of those who are vulnerable.

* Tahir Maher is a former Chair of South Central Liberal Democrats and lives in Wokingham.

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  • John Marriott 22nd Mar '18 - 5:17pm


  • Being on social media is an entirely voluntary exercise. I’ve never had a social media account (I’m 34), and know plenty of other people my age who never have.

    Does social media compromise liberty? No. But that isnt to say it doesn’t undermine various aspects of liberal society.

  • Some media are full of the claims that Vince has got eight EU leaders to issue support for another Brexit referendum.

    Why is Vince enlisting the support of the EU to undermine UK democracy?
    What has UK internal voting got to do with politicians from other countries?
    Is this not a disaster for Lib Dems?
    Why is the entire Lib Dem press release a non story or at least not happening?
    On what grounds will this comment be deleted?
    You have my email address, I await your explanation to this topical, polite and valid comment.

  • OnceALibDem 22nd Mar '18 - 7:48pm

    “Being on social media is an entirely voluntary exercise. I’ve never had a social media account (I’m 34), ”

    Numerous organisations, including the Lib Dems, only put information on Facebook. When I asked about conference coverage in the autumn I was directed to Facebook.

  • Unfortunately, social media companies focus really on advertising.
    That is because they offer their ‘service’ free to the public, hence they have to earn money somehow, which they currently do via advertising and selling access to their data – yes everything you put on Facebook becomes their data.

    Users of social media are not always careful which sites they go on: they don’t change passwords regularly, restrict access to their sites and/or use anti-virus software. The consequence is that data can be stolen from users and social media companies
    Don’t see the relevance of what is being said here, other than the author seems to be making unfounded generalisations about social media users and promoting various myths about Internet security. Talk to Facebook users and a common complaint is that they have to regularly check their Facebook privacy settings as Facebook has a habit of resetting stuff. The vast majority of data thefts in recent times have been by groups directly targeting websites and extracting the details of millions of users…

    It’s a difficult balance between having a secure communication platform for people to use and ensuring liberty and protecting users against coercion. I don’t think that we can actually do it.
    The choice is do we want ‘free’ public access to social media sites such as Facebook, in which case the sites will need to find ways of monetising that user base and the data those users have uploaded, or do we invert the model so social media sites become subscription services and thus have a different relationship with their users.

    What is probably required is to require social media sites to carry a health warning reminding people they are the Product, not the Customer – the Customers are the advertising networks.

  • Every new media from books via newspapers and TV to the internet has been branded the devil incarnate, rotting the brains of our children and uneducated!

    Of course every technology is used by humans who are imperfect and out for their own ends – sometimes criminal and evil.

    But as Lib Dems we should welcome the freedom of expression and ease of communication that Facebook, social media and the internet brings and support the lightest of regulation.

    Am I alone in finding the current bogus “red scare” somewhat troubling? Somehow $150k had this massive effect on the US elections when up against the $2 billion spent by the political parties.

    Of course the one thing that remains constant is that the “old” media always hates the “new” media – cinema against television in the past – as they see the new media as stealing their revenues and customers.

  • Antony Watts 23rd Mar '18 - 8:18am

    Clearly there is a demand, not surprising as we are societal animals, for a space for interaction. This has become facebook et al. Billions of people.

    So we have to look at what alternatives we have. Used to be speakers corner and the local pub, but what is today’s?

    And then there is the mining of personal data and its use for indirect marketing. This is an area where politicians have failed to keep up with the need for regulation.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 23rd Mar '18 - 3:54pm

    Please don’t get me wrong I am very much for media platforms like Facebook but having access like that must come with responsibility and the company must ensure against abuse of data and those who collaborate.
    @Roland – security is an issue it’s not a myth neither are false posting. Users have to be protected against their data being stolen and ensure what is being posted is not harmful and as much as possible true. As Liberals we support free expression as long as it doesn’t impact someone

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Mar '18 - 4:14pm

    Only if you post items you’d prefer to be private, thinking they will be. Private messaging is a threat if it is compromised. Security settings must reflect what is credible. In the end there are better ways of communicating confidential information. Better education will help. Liberty is the freedom to voice your views and freedom from misinformation and unrealistic expectations of how your information will be shared.

  • @Tahir, I think you misunderstand my point. Yes Security is a big issue and not just an IT issue, however, in the context of your article, which seemed to be more about the responsibilities of social media businesses, the point about what users are not doing to protect themselves seemed out of place and tangential to the case you were making.

    The details of 70M Facebook users lifted from Facebook, wasn’t down to users failing to change passwords or use antivirus software, it was down to social engineering in the form of a survey (from a seemingly reputable source) and users willingly, albeit unwittingly granting access to the survey to access their Facebook account, which it duly did according to the security settings individual users had previously set on their account.

    Similarly, I don’t the “abuse of users who are bullied or exploited” as being a consequence of the user behaviour described in the first sentence of that paragraph.

    So whilst there is much that individual Internet and social media users can do to guard against unscrupulous parties, they are to a large extent limited by what the social media companies themselves have or have not done and have made available to their users. To get the social media companies to change (ie. to take security, privacy etc more seriously), probably requires government action, which is what I understand your article was calling for.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 24th Mar '18 - 8:00am

    @ Roland – fair point. you have to remember an article is only about 500 words. What really really frustrates / annoys me about Facebook, YouTube etc is that it’s also a platform to groom kids, abuse by ISIS, by the right wing facist, crack down by countries like China on their people and maybe false news by foreign countries to influence our internal affairs. What is a wonderful liberal platform has nightmarish segments. And I would like more controls without it impacting our liberty. The frustration for me is I can’t see how that could be achieved.

  • Simon Banks 29th Mar '18 - 4:17pm

    Michael 1 – yes, foreign intervention may have had minimal effect on the US Presidential election, though minimal effect could still have swung it. But the political parties were not, as far as we know, trying to ruin their opponents’ online operations and steal their information. When any government tries to influence a foreign election in such ways – and I’m sure the US at various times would have liked to do it – it is a serious matter.

    Thankyou Tahir for raising this matter. Surely the issue is not whether social media are all good or bad (they’re not), but how Liberals can limit the harm and encourage the good.

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