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I’m in an abusive relationship with Facebook, and it’s becoming too much

J.D. Crowe cartoon about Facebook.

J.D. Crowe cartoon about Facebook. Credit: /

With true friends, the more you learn about each other the more you like, trust and want to spend time with each other. With Facebook, the more I learn about their cavalier attitude toward users’ personal data, the more I don’t like, trust or want to spend time with them.

And the more I read about Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of the private data of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission, the more stomach-turning I find it that the company celebrated its Feb. 4 anniversary with a self-declared “Friends Day,” a day for celebrating friendship.

When I opened the Friends Day link the other day, I received the following message: “Thank you for being a friend.” The message encouraged me to continue “to celebrate the ways that friends make life great,” and I will because they do. But Facebook itself does the opposite of what true friends do.

True friends inspire trust. The more you know them the more you trust them. But the more I learn about the way that Facebook either knowingly or carelessly made private user data available to a political consulting firm targeting messages to voters for the 2016 Trump campaign, the less I trust them.

The Facebook Principles open with the statement that “We are building Facebook to make the world more open and transparent.” And true friends are open and transparent with one another.

But Facebook cannot credibly stand for the values of openness and transparency when it is translucent at best about its own operations. Senior Facebook leaders reportedly disagree about how openly the company should share the extent to which nation states used the social network to spread disinformation. That disagreement makes it difficult to believe that openness and transparency are core values of the company.

The openness of true friends is warranted because, as Aristotle pointed out, with friends in the truest sense you get the feeling that “he or she would never wrong me.” But the fact that Facebook allowed the personal data of so many trusting users to get into the hands of a political data firm whose CEO offered to entrap rival politicians in order to sway an election does not leave me confident that the company would never harm me.

The fact that the social network was one of the most effective tools used in the 2016 election to spread Russian propaganda and fake news leaves me believing that they are capable of harming not only individuals but the country as a whole, knowingly or not. I can’t be friends with someone who would do that.

Facebook is also an anti-friend because you cannot count on the company to keep its word. There is no close friendship without deep trust, and there is no deep trust between two people who can’t count on each other’s word.

Facebook got into trouble with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 for telling users that third-party apps could not access their data. The FTC found that the apps could in fact do so extensively. The company entered into a consent decree with the agency promising to protect people’s personal information. The Cambridge Analytica controversy makes clear the company has not kept its word.

Whether that is because they did not care to do so, or because they were not capable of doing so, the result is the same: They cannot be trusted.

True friends spend time with one another because they love one another, not so that they can use each other. Those who profess to be your friend when they need something from you but not otherwise are not your friend at all.

Facebook is not your friend either. They want to get close to you and spend time with you so they can amass even greater power and wealth by selling ads based on personal information including your age, likes, etc.

It pains me to write these words about Facebook, because the platform has enabled me to reconnect and stay in touch with dozens of true friends and family members that I had fallen out of touch with over years of widespread travel and study abroad.

It troubles me that Facebook provides a place for true friends to meet and then takes advantage of the friends’ openness with each other. Facebook is like a bartender who keeps serving two friends drinks with a smile so that he or she can overhear their conversation and share details of it with people who want to use that information for their own purposes.

I am sure that I want to stay in touch with my friends. But I am increasingly unsure that I want to stay for another round at Mr. Zuckerberg’s bar.

Joseph Holt is an ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.