Facebook doesn’t care about your community: why local newspapers still matter

If you live in a small town like I do, Facebook may be the de facto source of information for everything that’s going on. It’s how you see what’s happening at your kids’ schools. It’s how you learn about community events. It’s how you stalk friends and family to satisfy morbid curiosity. I mean, if you really cared, you’d call text or call them, or heaven forbid, actually visit with them in person. We think that Facebook is a valuable resource in the affairs of the community.

Have you stopped to really think about how Facebook gets all that information? It’s not because it is generating valuable content by sending reporters into your community. It’s because well intentioned folks like us feed the beast with all the things that we care about and the algorithms regurgitate that content back at us based on our browsing habits, whether on the Facebook platform itself, or other websites, apps, and so-forth, that share your data with Facebook.

Think about this: Facebook lets you use its services for free because you are the product. They make their money from selling ads that you see based on your interests. They’ve been building this profile on your for quite some time, not only from what you do on their platforms, but also data from other websites that is shared/sold to Facebook. This is why you get ads for things you’ve never looked for on Facebook while you’re using Facebook. All this information about you and your habits gets aggregated into a massive profile. Facebook, Google, and the other large social media companies know you better than your family does. They know the vices and predilections that you try to hide from everyone else but give away free to them.

[I]t makes billions via digital advertising, as Facebook has something that companies really want – access to billions of people around the globe who might buy their products or services. In fact, so many companies advertise on Facebook that in 2017, Facebook earned $39.9 billion from advertising revenue. All in all, the company earns about 85% of its money from advertising.

(O’Connell, 2018)

Let’s not just beat up on Facebook for a moment; let’s talk about those third parties who share data with it. How do they know which refrigerator it was that you were looking at at the store the other day? Maybe you stopped too long in front of it and that data was shared with Facebook? CIO Magazine published an article that explains how that can occur all the way back in 2013. Titled 5 Ways to Track In-Store Customer Behavior, it lists them as: (1) Wi-Fi Fingerprinting: Track Strength of a Signal, (2) MEMS: Create a Heat Map of Customer Activity, (3) LED Lighting: Use Frequency Emissions to Determine Customer Location, (4) Bluetooth 4.0: Use Smartphone Signals to Send Deals to Customers, and (5) Loyalty Programs: Track What Customers Buy (Brandon, 2013). That last one is a particular stab in the back, but its simple quid pro quo: in exchange for deals, the business gets to know your spending habits. When you aggregate that data together (I’ve said aggregate quite a few times already; there’s a reason) with data from other vendors, Facebook and others get that really clear picture of who you are and what you like.

As a Christian, I don’t have a problem with an omnipotent, all-seeing God knowing everything about me, because He is just. I do have a problem with companies like Facebook who are running in god-mode seeing all we do online (and in the real world) and aggregating that data for their own purposes. Herein lies the problem of modern, information-based technologies: they are neither good nor evil, but the humans involved in the process may indeed be evil. We’d never know, because they are like the great and powerful Oz: hiding behind a veil pulling the levers to make the machines work. We know from law enforcement, that “anything you say can and will be used against you…”, so think about this: how will what you’ve said, searched, or visited be used against you? You’ve given it away freely and probably didn’t even read the terms and conditions of how it can be used.

I could go on and on with other examples, but I hope you are getting the point. You are the product, and anything that Facebook does, or allows you to do, on its platforms is in furtherance of generating revenue. It’s what a business does. So without animosity, I restate my original point: Facebook, as a business and an amalgamation of machines, coders, and artificial intelligence, doesn’t care about your community. Facebook will continue to exist if nothing whatsoever is posted about you or your community.

Here’s another headline that should open your eyes: FTC investigates whether ISPs sell your browsing history and location data.

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the privacy practices of major Internet service providers, and it has ordered top ISPs to disclose whether they share user Web browsing histories, device location information, and other sensitive data with third parties. ISPs also have to provide details on how they collect and use personal information to target advertisements at consumers.

(Brodkin, 2019)

Before I move on to the second-half of what I’d like to impart, I want to share a faint glimmer of hope. Facebook does provide a tool that allows you to see what information they have on you, and provides a way to turn it off. You can find out more about how to do that here.

Now that I’ve shown you some of the ways that Facebook and other platforms are tracking you, and not for your benefit, I’m sure you’re going to immediately delete your Facebook account and take control of all your personal data. Who’s with me? Bueller??? Bueller??? Bueller???

We’ve become so addicted to immediate access to information, we find it hard to walk away from it. Our brains have been re-wired for instant gratification in all aspects of life.

Getting back to the second half of the title, what does the local paper have to do with any of this? Here’s my take: the local paper helps keep us tethered to humanity and our local communities. Large papers in major urban areas may not share this same phenomenon; I want to focus on the small town newspaper.

In rural America, and I’d imagine other countries, many of the small papers are still locally owned. The local paper for my community is the Northwest Alabamian, which is ironically owned by the local sheriff (Taylor, 2019). In rural America, this isn’t necessarily cause for controversy. When you take a look at the Northwest Alabamian’s website, you see near the bottom of the “About” page that Sheriff Moore has been the publisher of the paper since 1983 (Mid-South Newpapers, Inc., 2021). Much of what is published in the paper is pro- law enforcement, pro- Veteran, and pro- America. From my casual observations in the community, I’d say this reflects the majority opinion of the community rather well.

If you’re looking for instant information, you’re not getting it with the local paper, which, in my case, is printed weekly. That’s old news, you may say. Tell me this, of what you read on Facebook, how much do you retain two hours later? We read it on our screens and then immediately purge. We ingest so much information so rapidly, that we (or at least, I) seldom retain any of it. We value it less because there is so much of it; it becomes debased.

When I sit down with my weekly copy of the paper, I am first forced to unfold it to gain full access to its contents. I am greeted with ostentatious headlines such as “Outraged citizens bombard County Commission”. I have to turn to page 11 to finish reading “Outraged”. I’ve sat in on a couple of these County Commission meetings, so I find that headline particularly amusing.

Several years back the road I lived on at the time was washed out by a freak storm. This happened while my family and I were away on vacation and we were frantically looking online for a backroad to just to get home (which, by the way, did not exist). Fortunately, a kind neighbor had a dirt path along the edge of his pasture that connected to an adjoining road that he allowed the neighborhood to use for some time while the County repaired the large gully that had washed out. They weren’t moving along quite as fast as I would have liked, so I sat in on a County Commission meeting one week to see what was going on. I was frustrated at the meeting and expressed that frustration politely and professionally to the commissioners. Imagine my surprise in the next week’s paper to see my frustrated face in a photo squared off against one of the commissioners. The article was well executed, but those two photos were a great example of visual hyperbole. Facebook never takes the time to do that, does it? I thought the article was great, and it had the community talking about the washed out road, which after about six months, finally got fixed.

Lets talk about the ads in the local paper. They are targeted too, but they are targeted to the community and not the individual. The local paper isn’t data mining your intimate details. It’s selling ad spaces to businesses with a stake in the community. It’s amusing to me that the ads running across the top of the paper from 2017 is unchanged from the paper I got in the mail this week, with two major exceptions: Traders and Farmer’s Bank is now BankFirst, and the financial advisor looks a little older in the picture posted in his ad. That reflects the zeitgeist of my community rather well. We are a little slower to embrace change, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It’s one of the reasons I moved here in the first place.

When I flip to the second page of the paper, vanity of vanities, there I am in a group photo in an article discussing the new park that we are planning in town. There’s a picture of the proposed design from a nonprofit organization called Design Alabama that sat down with us for the day to help us work on ideas for what to do with the vacant lot that was to be repurposed into a park. The local reporter was there, not only documenting the discussion, but taking part it in, because he is an embedded and valuable member of the community.

I can read about other activities going on in the community. On the front page, I read about one of the local towns working with its American Legion Post to build a new Veterans memorial. As I flip further back I see where another local Legion Post helped our a needy Veteran who was passing through. I can read about the dearly departed from the community. I can read about the local felony and misdemeanor arrests; the public naming-and-shaming. The local paper tells of the good and the ill that goes on in the community.

That brings us to the irony of the matter: paying for old information that we’ve probably already seen on Facebook for free. Why would a rational person do that? I can only tell you why I do that. I do it as an investment back into my community. I bought my subscription from one of the local high school Juniors who was selling them as a fundraiser. Yes, the paper got most of that money, but part of it helped out a local kid. My subscription helps pay salaries of newspaper staff who are part of the community. They shop at the stores in town and, in turn, put money back into the community. My subscription ensures that a (hopefully) unbiased recounting of events was presented to the community, as opposed to an emotional, and often irrational, rant being posted in haste on Facebook. I can focus on the text and images of the paper sitting in front of me as opposed to rapidly scrolling down my screen. It makes me slow down. These things are worth the subscription cost to me.

So the next time you’re scrolling through Facebook for some self-affirmation and a dopamine hit (Weinschenk, 2012), remember that you are the product. What you see is what Facebook thinks you are interested in seeing (or wants you to see). It makes money off what you see and what you click on. Maybe that will lead to some local business making some money. Your local paper, relic of a by-gone era that it is, actually employs folks from your community and advertises for businesses in your community. They don’t have some algorithm telling them what you want (or need) to see. They have reporters who are a part of your community reporting on things of interest in your community. Your local paper is focused on your community and surrounding communities. What is Facebook focused on?


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