Facebook Campus is not Middlebury’s friend

By Jake Gaughan

On Dec. 3, 2020, Middlebury’s official Instagram account posted a story encouraging students to join the new Facebook Campus platform, a section of the app wherein college students can only interact with other students at their school, which rolled out at select colleges this fall. “As a Middlebury student you have access to @facebookcampus,” read the Instagram post. “Visit @facebookcampus and start developing a community based on your interests, hometown, class year, fandom, or field of study.” Such language is eerily similar to that used by Facebook in its own advertising for the new feature: 

“College is a time for making new friends, finding people who share similar interests and discovering new opportunities to connect – from clubs to study groups, sports and more. In the early days, Facebook was a college-only network, and now we’re returning to our roots with Facebook Campus to help students make and maintain these relationships, even if they’re away from their college.”

This post raises a lot of questions regarding the nature of the college’s relationship with Facebook; it goes without saying that it is uncommon practice for official college accounts to post advertisements for private companies, much less one of Facebook’s size. When I noticed the college’s Instagram story in December, I asked on Twitter what the nature of the college’s relationship to Facebook was. I received a reply from @middlebury clarifying that “there was and is no financial exchange between FB/Midd for access to Facebook Campus.” Middlebury was one of the 30 colleges that was given early — free — access to the new platform this past fall. I’m sure most students are aware of this fact due to regular posting by Campus Ambassadors — students paid to turn their personal social media pages into advertising verticals for Facebook — that has flooded students’ feeds for the last few months. Further emails and direct messages inquiring about the relationship between Middlebury and Facebook remain unanswered.

Moving forward, the college should not only publicly clarify the nature of their relationship with Facebook but also sever whatever relationship that may be. Further advertisement of the platform by the college would serve as an endorsement of the unethical business practices that Facebook employs around the world to take advantage of their users — including Middlebury students.

There are many reasons to critique Facebook both as a company and as a social media platform. Some examples include but are not limited to: its ethically-questionable founding, its well-documented experiments with emotional manipulation, how Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp’s lack of moderation led to lynchings in India, how Facebook’s own lack of moderation led to genocide in Myanmar, its outsized manipulative influence on elections around the world, the inhumane working conditions its moderators are subjected to, Facebook’s fraudulent inflation of video metrics which led to mass layoffs in journalism, its permittance of rampant Covid-19 disinformation, its comically massive lobbying budget, its advertising of weapons accessories following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and many other transgressions. 

Any one of these issues is reason enough for the college to distance itself from the platform. But if none of them hit close enough to home, here’s a fact that will: one of the biggest problems with Facebook is its extractive business model that treats users as reservoirs of accessible personal data and little more. Facebook Campus aims this model directly at students.  

In that same December tweet clarifying the college’s relationship with Facebook, @middlebury added a claim that “[Facebook Campus] is 100% designed for students” before linking to marketing material from fb.com. This is a lie. Facebook Campus is no more designed for students than an oil rig is designed for the Earth. Facebook needs our user data to profit, and they are willing to go to great lengths to extract it.

At Facebook, the user is the commodity. Ninety-eight and a half percent of the firm’s revenue comes from advertising to users and harvesting user data. By being famously cagey and greedy with their privacy policies, Facebook has perfected mass data collection. Reading the Facebook Data Policy leaves one feeling curious at what aspect of a user’s experience they aren’t surveilling, with nearly every user action quantified and stored for later use. 

In many ways, Facebook Campus presents an even scarier opportunity for such data surveillance. By centralizing the college experience onto its platform, Facebook no longer has to make educated guesses about the minutiae of students’ lives; instead, students give it to them. Facebook Campus is able to glean which classes, clubs and majors students are in, along with who they study with and even where they live. This intimately detailed personal data will then be auctioned off for any number of purposes or will be used by Facebook themselves to sell students things. Facebook Campus did not grant us early access because they care deeply about fostering community at Middlebury college. They did it for the free and robust collection of personal data that we provide them. 

Of course, most students have already signed up for at least one of Facebook’s platforms and are already being surveilled. I once shopped for a hat by saying “baseball cap” into my phone’s microphone and looking through the resulting Instagram ads. But the purpose of this op-ed is not to shame individual students for using Facebook. The platform is good at doing what it is supposed to do — connecting people. Even if one is able to escape from Facebook and the portfolio of social media platforms it owns, true freedom from Facebook’s data supervision would require almost no usage of any online platform, something that is nearly impossible to do in 2021. 

 One may ask, then, what the purpose of Middlebury disavowing Facebook Campus is if the data extraction is already happening. Such an observation dismisses the importance of an institutional endorsement. Just as Middlebury rescinding Rudy Giuliani’s honorary degree matters and just as the college’s divestment from fossil fuels matters, so does the stance of the college on predatory products that target its students. Middlebury’s advertisement of Facebook Campus is a tacit endorsement of the shady practices and unethical policies that Facebook uses. Regardless of what individual students decide to do with their own personal data, the college should not be advertising for a platform that will overindulge and invade students’ personal privacy. 

Facebook can be fixed — there are reforms, redirections and antitrust lawsuits that can be enacted to improve the company. There are some good, earnest people employed there who are actively working to create a better social media platform. Middlebury has no role to play in advertising these reforms, nor do we have a role to play in Facebook’s inevitable brand rehabilitation campaign. The stated mission of Middlebury — and of the other 29 colleges and universities that Facebook has chosen to test Facebook Campus on — is one that revolves around education, not the wealth of corporations. The college must prioritize students’ privacy over the access — and surveillance — that Facebook Campus is offering. 

 

Jake Gaughan is a news editor and a member of the class of 2022.