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Computer Scientist Jen Golbeck Reflects on Two Decades of Social Media Research and Where We’re Heading Next

Jen Golbeck. Credit: University of Maryland.

In the new year, computer scientist and social media expert Jen Golbeck has a resolution to get everyone to start talking about internet privacy. Election manipulation, along with an “unethical level of surveillance” on social networks is something the AAAS Member is both researching in her lab and calling attention to on a nearly daily basis on Twitter.

Recently, Golbeck has shared tips on how to avoid saying too much online (consider your boundaries and others before posting) and tweeted about the little known consequences of in-home surveillance devices.

And Russian hackers and spies? Are they also following Golbeck’s tweets on the hazards of surveillance? Well, maybe. 

“One time my mom asked me, aren’t you worried about the Russians?” Golbeck says with a laugh. “I’m probably not their target, or I hope not.”

Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and former Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, has been studying popular social media platforms since their odd beginnings, from Adult Friendfinder (the most popular online network in 2006), to Facebook, which launched while she was completing her PhD studies and working on her thesis on trust in web-based social networks. 

“I got to follow the development of these platforms and study how they emerged and how people use them,” she says. “I tell people you can say I am either a genius or my timing was perfect to be on the web studying social networks.”

Golbeck’s fascination and research on social media have changed over time, along with the social networks she is studying and analyzing. She says many researchers, herself included, thought people would use social networks to create their own communities or share information, not for interacting with the entire world the way they do. The shift has happened recently. 

“We did a paper in 2009 about what members of Congress have said on Twitter. There were like 3,000 tweets, and we were like here’s what they talk about, there wasn’t much discussion or anything,” Golbeck says of the congressional tweets, adding it was more like PR for members of Congress to tweet in the first place. 

“Ten years ago, it was novel that legislators were on Twitter. This was the very beginning we started to see it (social media) emerge into public life. At that time, I started to have some worries,” she says.

Today, on the edge of 2019, Golbeck says people don’t know how bad surveillance has gotten, and how their data can be used against them. Even liking something on Facebook can reveal something about you to a company that you might prefer to keep private, according to Golbeck. She says AI has gotten really good about analyzing data, and manipulation is more advanced and has gone in ways computer scientists didn’t expect. For example, she didn’t expect the use of the platform Facebook to amplify the far right, not in 2020 or even 2012. 

“Part of it for me, is that people don’t know how bad it is. That’s on purpose, companies aren’t telling you. There’s this idea you can be careful about what you post on social media, like I don't post my personal info and I don’t overshare, and I'm fine (from surveillance) but that’s not just what is happening,” she says. “There are trackers on your phone, collecting data about you and the companies that aggregate this data know exactly who you are, and they can advertise to you across your devices.”

Jen Golbeck.

Golbeck is currently working on a study to see what companies are doing with what they “hear” and how that feeds into advertisements a person sees on their devices. She says even if we never turn on the microphone, she wants to learn if companies are still listening in the way she expects, and how real-life horror stories have shown they are. She points to recent news revealing La Liga — the league in which soccer teams Real Madrid and FC Barcelona play — were caught spying on fans, using their microphones and location data to listen and locate bars that were pirating streams of soccer games.

Could companies in the U.S. be behaving similarly? 

“I think yes, and I’m working on proving that,” she says. Her study is expected to come out this summer.

Still, even with many valid concerns about a dystopian future, one that Golbeck says is “full-on terrifying,” it’s not easy for her to give up Facebook or Twitter. Golbeck herself has 15 Twitter accounts, each one with a different purpose and tone. 

Her most popular Twitter handle, @TheGoldenRatio4, focuses on Golbeck’s quintet of golden retrievers and provides more than 89.3K followers with supportive tweets that things are going to be okay, accompanied with images of Golbeck’s cuddly dogs at the beach or chowing treats, of course. Golbeck came up with the idea in 2016, when she felt there was a need to read kinder messages on social media. 

“Twitter was very angry,” she recalls. “I needed a space where I didn’t have to be angry. At the time, I had four golden retrievers and I thought let me share that.”

Another account, @FreeSciNet, Golbeck created to form a social network for academic communities to support scientists who were stuck in and outside of the country during the Trump Administration’s “Muslim ban.” Golbeck says there was a huge response to her quickly improvised network, and “tons of people giving space and money” to help people stuck in customs and airports. 

As for Facebook, Golbeck says she only has an account so she can continue to study the network. And while Facebook isn’t exactly sending Golbeck a friend request to learn more about her research, she has served as an expert witness on some class-action lawsuits against the social network, using her expertise to advise on privacy and help protect people who use the most popular social platform in the world. 

“Privacy is my big issue at this point, both personally and professionally,” she says. “Of course they (social networks) have to share things publicly, and of course they want to analyze things we are doing on their platforms to make things better for us…(but) they have not been good stewards of that data on any accounts, and they keep lying about it, and they don’t seem to care about exploiting people’s data.”

Her tip for other scientists concerned about privacy on social media?

“Make as many people aware of this as possible and what the implications are, I think those are the steps. I’m not a big regulation person, it’s not the solution,” she says, though she does see GDPR as a bit of a silver lining in 2019. 

Golbeck predicts that many of the problems that come with social media platforms will one day have a scientific solution. Tech companies can look at ways to minimize harm on their platforms, she says, such as sharing the risk that can come from “liking” something and report possible harms from surveillance.

She is also closely following research on fighting racism on social media and hopes tech companies will take note of the type of research others are doing on what may be done to limit hate from spreading online. 

“In the future, there may be something that can say this is kind of harsh, are you sure you want to post that?”

For scientists taking to Twitter or Facebook or even Snapchat in 2020, Golbeck offers some tips from her nearly two decades of studying social media. 

“Think really carefully about the voice you want to have... Stick to your expertise, and what you know.”

Even, she says, if people never want to hear another thing you have to say because there is a disagreement about something. 

“I don’t know any scientist who isn’t going to have controversial views or opinions in their science or research. Those things are always there,” she says.


Jen Golbeck Dogs
Jen Golbeck often tweets about her dogs, The Golden Ratio on Twitter @TheGoldenRatio4.
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Emileigh Clare