By Lindsay Ficklin, Lexi Hargesheimer, Chloe Vann, and Dorothy Williams
This past fall, we enrolled in a Media Literacy course at Appalachian State University. We came into the class from various majors, including: Electronic Media and Broadcasting, Middle Grades Education, Communications, and Elementary Education. According to the syllabus, we would “examine what it means to be literate in the technological world of the twenty-first century where digital media pervades in our daily experiences.” Since we all participate in this technological, mediated world it was extremely relevant that we engaged in “accessing, analyzing, evaluating, creating, and acting using all forms of communication” (Media Literacy Defined, NAMLE, 2007).
Have You Ever Wondered?
You probably know that there’s information about you online related to your activity. Together, this activity comprises your digital footprint. But did you know that your actions are not only closely tracked, but also analyzed? Had you considered how Snapchat filters use facial recognition or why this could be a serious invasion of privacy? While many of us know tracking happens, most of us never dig deeper into what this means for our abilities to engage in self-expression or freedom of thought. The internet provides transformation possibilities for expression, but how does data mining impact what we see or our beliefs? Tracking online is a part of a much bigger process called data mining that consists of “a variety of computer-intensive techniques for analyzing patterns in data” (Attewell, Monaghan, & Kwong, 2015, 3). Patterns can then be used to predict our behaviors. Consider this quote from media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff:
While we’ve been busily shielding what we think of as our “personal” data, Facebook has been analyzing the stuff we think doesn’t matter: our clicks, likes and posts, as well as the frequency with which we make them. Looking at this metadata, Facebook, its psychologists and its clients put us into different psychographic “buckets.” That’s how they came to be able to predict, with about 80% accuracy, our future behaviors, including whether we’re going to go on a diet, vote for a particular candidate or announce a change in sexual orientation. (Rushkoff, 2018).
Predict our behaviors? Impact elections? We wanted to explore how our searches were tracked and see how they impacted our access to information online and, possibly, our personal liberties.
Our Privacy Prowl Experiment
As a part of class, we examined our online privacy by attempting to track the web tracking us. It started with an announcement: Congratulations! We’re getting married! We tracked the web catering to our new interest in planning a wedding. We searched topics related to weddings, bridal showers, gowns, rings and more. As we searched, we documented related advertisements on different websites, such as Pinterest, and noticed “recommended” videos featured on YouTube. This targeted material showed that our behavioral pattern was strong enough to trigger algorithmic systems that influence what we saw. Mining algorithms help “predict” what a person will do (Liu & Hsu, 2012, p. 296). As we had hoped, the web guessed that we had an upcoming wedding and began directing us to wedding ideas and gifts. Although we only searched the topic for a few weeks, we were presented with an onslaught of related ads.
Benefits, Drawbacks, and Beyond
Overall, our experiment offered evidence proving that we are commercially catered towards based on the specific interests we expose about ourselves online. We learned that once information is out there, there’s no getting it back, and companies use it to generate profit. While data mining may have advantages, such as creating convenience for consumption or, as Yu-Chin Liu and Yung-Chieh Hsu’s (2012) explain, preventing negative experiences, such as deviant patterned behaviors committed by adolescents, we wonder about the darker side of digital stalking. As Vertesi (2014) explains “the data-driven path we are currently on—paved with the heartwarming rhetoric of openness, sharing, and connectivity—actually undermines civic values and circumvents checks and balances” (2014, p. 4). If online ads track us in order to cater towards our biases— suggesting new pages to like on FaceBook or news articles to read based on our networks— how else might they direct us? Should our behavior be tracked and exploited for profit? Who gets to decide the extent of our rights regarding digital privacy? What does this mean for our constitutional rights? These questions are not easily answered, but require our attention nonetheless. Through media literacy education, we might gain greater awareness of privacy and discover ways to advocate for a future where data-mining doesn’t undermine our freedom of attention or choice.
Attewell, Paul A, et al. “What is Data Mining?” Data Mining for the Social Sciences: An
Introduction, University of California Press, 2015, pp. 3-12, JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1525/j.ctt13x1gcg.4.pdf?refreqid=search%3A6f2bcadb6db30e597b39d4b38b929b18. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.
Liu, Yu-Chin. “Predicting Adolescent Deviant Behaviors through Data Mining Techniques.” Journal of Educational Technology & Society, vol. 16, no. 1, 13 Mar. 2012, pp. 295-308, JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/jeductechsoci.16.1.295.pdf. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.
National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2007, November). Media Literacy Defined. Retrieved December 12, 2018 from https://namle.net/publications/core-principles.
Rushkoff, D. (2018, March 25). How Facebook exploited us all. Retrieved April 04, 2018, from http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-rushkoff-leaving-facebook-20180325-story.html?outputType=amp&__twitter_impression=true
Vertesi, Janet. “Opting Out: My Experiment to Hide My Pregnancy From Big Data Made Me Look Like a Criminal.” 2014, Accessed 12 Dec. 2018.
About the Authors
Chloe Vann is an Elementary Education major who is also minoring in Media Studies and Gender, Women’s Sexuality Studies. She is a freshman at Appalachian State University.
Lindsay Ficklin is a Communications major with a concentration in Advertising. She is also a Media Studies and Marketing double minor. She is a sophomore at Appalachian State University, a part of the Honors College, and a sister of the Lambda Phi chapter of Delta Zeta.
Lexi Hargesheimer is a junior Electronic Media and Broadcasting major at Appalachian State University who is also pursuing a minor in Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies. After her graduation in May 2020, Lexi would like to go into either the radio industry or into audio production for sports or news.
Dorothy Williams is a junior Middle Grades Education major with a Media Studies minor at Appalachian State University. She hopes to teach middle school history and language arts and eventually would like to go into school administration.