How to Avoid Being Manipulated Online

Online Companies Are Exploiting You

These days, nearly everyone knows that Facebook is unethical. Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress and the FTC recently fined his company $5 billion. While this may be common knowledge, it still bears repeating what practices Facebook and similar companies are engaged in. This is especially true because Facebook remains incredibly profitable. Moreover, it still has 2.41 billion monthly active users. Facebook and other large online companies like Google and Amazon are amassing and monetizing data collected from their users. These data are used to serve users with targeted ads that influence their behaviors. Simply put, online companies are manipulating their users. Below I highlight three ways in which we can avoid being manipulated online.

Learn What Data are Being Collected

Companies track the activities you perform online and within mobile applications. Facebook, specifically, monitors your likes, comments, clicks, scrolls, and other “digital body language.” Companies also place cookies, or small text files, on your browser to track what you do when you leave their website. These activities help companies form a picture of your interests and are paired with “explicit criteria.” Explicit criteria are data you give to companies. Your email address, name, age, and expressed hobbies are all examples of explicit criteria.

Companies’ privacy policies state what data they use, how they use them, and what additional data sources they pull in. Below is a screenshot of Pinterest’s privacy policy displaying what data they collect (for the entire policy, click here):

avoid being manipulated

Privacy policies are becoming simpler to read after waves of congressional hearings. I advise you to take the time to read them, so you know what information you’re putting in the hands of online companies.

Learn How Your Data are Being Used

How your data are being used is even more important than what data are being captured. Are your data being sold to other companies? What are those other companies doing with your data? Are your data protected as they reside on company servers? Because we could not answer these questions, our data were used to influence an election. Threats to democracy aside, it’s critical that we are informed about the use of our data. Again, I encourage you to read the privacy policy. Using the same Pinterest privacy policy as above, you can find details about what Pinterest does with data it collects:

avoid being manipulated

By doing some due diligence, you can make an informed decision as to whether you’re comfortable with the way in which your data are used.

Boycott Unethical Companies

After you have learned what data are captured and what is done with them, you can decide what companies you should boycott. You’ll note that I do not have a Facebook account. Several years ago, I grew uncomfortable with the negative effects the use of Facebook had on people. They had experimented with their users’ emotions. Moreover, I began to learn what they were doing with my data. I believe the company is unethical and therefore discontinued the use of its service. I’m not suggesting you do the same. However, I am stressing the importance of discovering how these companies are monetizing your data. The uninformed are easily manipulated. Please don’t make yourself vulnerable to exploitation.

Avoid Being Manipulated

Online companies are effective marketers that tout their free services. Great taglines like “connecting the world” and “don’t be evil” mask the fact that these companies’ services aren’t actually free. Our data is captured, sold, and used to influence our buying decisions. If we are aware of and comfortable with these practices, then and only then should we use these companies’ services. When we see advertisements that seem so relevant that we get spooked, we should know our data was effectively harnessed. Knowledge is the antidote to exploitation. By remaining up to date on online company data practices, we can avoid being manipulated.

Do you have other suggestions about how we can avoid being manipulated by online companies? Leave a comment below or contact me directly.
Avoid Being Manipulated

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