TECH
13/10/2019 10:20 AM IST

How Facebook, Instagram Have Normalised Cyber Stalking — By Bots And Humans

The only consolation is that stalking by bots seems to be democratic. It doesn’t differentiate between gender, class, caste or race. Or does it?

jpa1999 via Getty Images
Representative image.

Browsing through my Instagram feed last week, my fingers stilled on an advertisement. What had caught my eye was a red dress, even though I almost never buy clothes online. Immediately, as if sensing the spark of my interest from the lack of movement of my thumb, the action button on the advertisement changed from a soft lemon to a deep mustard, willing me to press it and head to the brand’s website to buy the dress. The change of colour, brought about by the ingenious use of a piece of a code to pull me into the advertisement, snapped me out of my browsing languor.

Strangely, this behaviour by Instagram reminded me of a flesh-and-blood stalker who had, a few years ago, caught hold of my phone number, without my consent, and sent me a barrage of unwanted messages. I suddenly felt stalked by Instagram. Someone, a non-human someone, a bot or a piece of software sitting on a server in the Instagram office, knew where I was and that I had looked at a picture of a red dress in the middle of the night for a little too long.

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Rationally, I knew I had allowed Instagram to ‘stalk’ me, by consenting to its ‘terms of use’, without even reading them, so it could collect personal data, browsing habits, location, mood, what I do on connected apps such as Facebook, who I meet in real life, and how my fingertips move on my phone’s touchscreen. Even so, my reaction to this algorithmic stalking was dramatic. 

Yet, it wasn’t the first time I had felt this way. I experience it each time an unwanted notification pops up on my Facebook browser. “Get more people who like your Page to see this Post,” says one. “Earn a better response rate by responding to the message by < name> on your Facebook page,” says another. Suggestions that are harmless but feel malignant.

When I told my real-life stalker I didn’t reciprocate his feelings, he threatened to come to my home to convince me he’s the one for me—for, apparently, I did not know what I was missing out on. He revealed he had found my address, and proved it by sharing it with me. I go through a milder but similar experience when I don’t log in to Facebook for a few weeks or when I deactivate my account. Facebook bombards me with emails on my Gmail account that alternate between imploring me to get back on and using soft threats that play on my fear-of-missing-out.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘cyberstalking’ as “the repeated use of electronic communications to harass or frighten someone, for example by sending threatening emails”. It is a punishable offence in most countries. Now, social media is turning us all into mild cyberstalkers. We check our ex’s Facebook profile to see what they are up to or snoop on an individual’s Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook feeds to decide on their intellectual and professional worth. Doing this without their knowledge, we don’t define ourselves as stalkers. One of my relatives has a habit of checking the Facebook profiles of his family members and friends, without leaving comments or likes. He shrugs off this behaviour by saying, “If someone’s window is open, of course, I will peak in to see what is happening in their home.”

Such behaviour on social media has been normalised. And stalking by bots, algorithms or bits of code is not even a thing. Pieces of software are simply shrugged off as mechanical bits of written binary. They don’t have an agenda. Why would a bot harass you? It only follows you around, clandestinely, because it wants the social media platform to be more relevant to you, make your online life better.

So, when someone I chatted with an hour ago on WhatsApp pops up in my Facebook ‘friend suggestion’, I cringe a little but suppress the uncomfortable feeling. After all, I have consented to the platform’s terms of use. 

Social media companies use sophisticated codes to track our online lives across platforms. They embed small bits of code called cookies in our personal devices and browsers, often without our knowledge, to record our choices, even when we log out of their platforms. All this in the guise of showing us relevant advertisements. If I am sharing personal information on their free platform, what’s the harm in them making a dossier of my life and showing it to a bunch of advertisers so they can dazzle me with cute red dresses? It’s a win-win, right?

Recently though, it seems to have gone out of control. My trust that Facebook, Instagram or Twitter will keep what I post private and not share it with third-party apps has dropped dramatically. I’m not the only one. Last year, the European Union ordered social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter to make changes to their terms of use – including informing users clearly of how their data is used – or face sanctions. Some Internet companies also paid fines to offer a band-aid solution to the privacy violation controversy. Thereafter, their bots continue to stalk us.

Modern social networks have become all-knowing, all-tracking Orwellian corporate states where stalking is normalised—by bots and humans—with all of us willing participants. The only consolation is that stalking by bots seems to be democratic. It doesn’t differentiate between gender, class, caste or race. Or does it?

Shweta Taneja (@shwetawrites) is a journalist and novelist, most recently of ‘The Rakta Queen, an Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, published with HarperCollins.