The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook and the very real problem of keeping student data private

Facebook chief executive  Mark Zuckerberg speaks at his company’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose on April 18, 2017. (Noah Berger/AP)

Facebook is struggling with a serious scandal in which it says that “malicious actors” took advantage of search tools on its platform, allowing them to identify and collect data on most of the 2 billion people around the world who use Facebook. That, of course, includes a lot of children.

The Facebook scandal underscores growing concerns about the privacy of student data with the push by corporations and policymakers to expand online learning and with the growth of social media platforms.

In this post, two researchers look at how Facebook collects data on children — in and out of school — and what the repercussions could be. They are Alex Molnar, publications director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and co-director of the center’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit; and Faith Boninger, co-director of the center’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit.

Incidentally, NEPC recently deleted its Facebook page. The reasons are explained below.

Facebook: ‘Malicious actors’ used its tools to discover identities and collect data on a massive global scale

By Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger

Revelations that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used the personal data of millions of Facebook users to micro-target American voters has resulted in widespread public outrage. However, no one with even a passing familiarity with advertising-driven, for-profit digital platforms should claim to be surprised.

Every day, student data are vulnerable to the same thing: Student personal data are scooped up by digital platforms with little oversight or accountability.

The lack of public oversight of digital platforms has created a de facto public policy based on the tacit assumption that virtual space is privately owned and that personal data are corporate property. This situation leaves the public with little or no clear recourse when personal data are used in ways that cause personal and social harm.

As a result, in many important respects, the U.S. economy is now a surveillance economy in which corporations — invisibly and profitably — gather information and create profiles on hundreds of millions of people. In particular, digital platforms in schools feed children into this surveillance economy.

The astonishing amount of data being collected about your children

We are researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and were discussing deleting our Facebook account when the news broke about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We have been studying advertising directed at students in schools for three decades. For the past five years, we have tracked the evolution of digital marketing and the use of digital platforms in schools with growing alarm.

In annual reports, we have presented our data and conclusions. Based on our research findings, we have repeatedly called for statutory changes and regulations to insure student privacy, protect data, require transparency and ensure accountability. Our findings show that despite philanthropic rhetoric, platforms such as Facebook are designed to turn data into money, and require strong public oversight to prevent abuse.

Facebook presents itself in altruistic language about binding people together in a radically transparent world of “friends”: a community open for use by anyone interested in sharing with others.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s anodyne presentations and relentless repetition of cliches (“Advancing human potential is about pushing the boundaries on how great a human life can be”) and techie tropes (“The Internet is so important that for every 10 people who gain Internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created.”) have helped create a rhetorical fog that obscures the fact that Facebook is a multinational advertising agency. It gathers data on its users, their friends and all their contacts. Then it takes that data, distills it, and targets content and ads to individuals.

In his 1928 book, “Propaganda,” Edward Bernays — often described as the father of the modern public relations industry — explained that advertising propaganda is about social control:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

When we discussed with colleagues the idea of deleting NEPC’s Facebook account, some argued that organizations critical of the implications of Facebook’s business model need to keep their accounts open to “remain part of the conversation.”

We suspect that Facebook would like nothing better than to have critics and commentators express themselves on Facebook. It both feeds the illusion of Facebook as a “public square” and provides Facebook with still more data with which to help advertisers shape their messaging; therefore, in our view, the conversation we want to have is best taken up outside of Facebook.

Others have suggested that deleting Facebook accounts is a privileged action that many people and companies, because of their circumstances, cannot take.

It’s true. Facebook has gobbled up a large portion of the market for digital advertising and has become the only advertising venue available for many small businesses. In less-developed countries, Facebook may offer the only communication medium available to many people and communities.

The question for us isn’t whether this is true. This is the question we are confronting: What is necessary to change this reality because it comes at terrible cost to democratic culture?

Facebook has, for example, already been accused of fueling turmoil and affecting elections in Myanmar, Sudan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Europe — and the United States — by allowing lies and propaganda to be published on its platform, which is used by many people around the world as a primary news source.

Now Zuckerberg is expanding his focus to include children as young as 6 years old in and out of schools.

His Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is devoting billions of dollars in grants and investments to promote adoption by schools of technology-driven “personalized learning.” Although it is unclear that “personalized learning” platforms and software improve learning, it is clear that to function, they require the collection of huge amounts of student data — data whose security is doubtful and that is in some cases explicitly shared with unnamed “partners.”

Meanwhile, Facebook introduced and is marketing its Messenger Kids app for children, despite being warned by numerous child advocates, educators, and child development experts about the many ways that the Messenger Kids app is likely to impede children’s healthy development.

Facebook isn’t the only actor whose work in the digital space can have destructive consequences. We have, for example, pointed to concerns with Google’s opaque algorithms in general and Google’s G-Suite for Education in particular. There is a long list of private investors betting that pushing digital technology into schools will result in big financial dividends. But our research tells us that investor interest should not be confused with a desire to improve schools, promote children’s welfare or provide social benefits.

What’s wrong with Facebook, Google and other unregulated digital platforms shaping children’s school experiences?

The dystopian teen novel “Feed” predicts what America’s schools would be like if media corporations owned and operated them. In “SchoolTM”  all the students receive free computers, and students’ classwork consists of learning how to use technology, get a job, find bargains and decorate their bedrooms. Their feed is full of ads, reassuring spin from the president and chatter from their friends. They are encouraged to shop and chat endlessly, with all their activities surveilled by the corporations that collect their data to predict future purchases. Anyone not connected risks becoming a social and economic outcast.

Our research suggests that the dystopia described in “Feed” is not an impossible future reality.

One teenager told us how her homework assignments, done mostly using the Google platform G-Suite for Education, becomes a portal that pulls her to the Internet and to constant tracking of her interests, friends and activities. She reports being online for hours when working on an essay or a project for school: “I’ll surf . . . open a new tab and go to Twitter, or Facebook, or BuzzFeed. Also Yahoo and Netflix. It’s all so accessible. I’m watching ’30 Rock.’ Each episode is 20 minutes, which is a good break. I get my texts on my computer, so I see them.”

She also told us about being followed around the Internet by shoe ads after she looked at shoes during one of her study breaks. So what does this have to do with Facebook? Because she has a Facebook account, Facebook collects data about her not only from the data that she has willingly supplied but also from actions she takes on the platform. Whenever she goes to a page with a “like” button, Facebook stores and sells that data.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has taught us that Facebook also collects, stores, and shares data about the teen’s friends. She may have joined Facebook independently of school, but school activities prevent students like her from leaving. Many school groups use Facebook to organize, and students need to be part of those groups. Unable to opt out even if they wanted to, students constantly provide Facebook with information that is then used to manipulate them, usually without their realizing it.

Schools are important civic institutions, essential to democratic culture; and a healthy democratic culture requires a dynamic public sphere. The public sphere is not simply a political framework. It is supported by shared customs and practices, norms and values. It requires constant attention to insure that powerful interests don’t constrain, marginalize, or silence contrary or challenging expressions.

Children are now routinely subjected to all the marketing firepower that money can buy. They are without recourse as their personal data are gathered and sold on. Using these data, advertisers attempt to shape their attitudes about how they should think about their families, friendships, romantic relationships, environment, society and themselves.

Is this really what the American public wants for its children?