If Facebook were run by librarians this would never happen.

It is as if the Joker and his villainous pals switched on Gotham’s giant search engines to churn results that foil rational thought. Cambridge Analytica heisted political culture with misbegotten Facebook data to differentiate and to direct covert advertisements and made-up news to personal web spaces. Avoiding the shared public square, they disseminated propaganda to influence a thin margin of voters. Corrupt politicians, narcissists and their sycophants, were foisted upon an unwitting citizenry by super-powered personal data abusers.

If Facebook were run by librarians this would never happen.

OK, maybe not never happen, but it’d be way less likely. Here’s why:

Librarians purge personal data, we don’t hold on to it. Library circulation systems ‘de-link’ borrower data when books are returned (on time, without penalty). CUNY Libraries data retention policy erases record of books you borrow one month after you return them (and amend any penalty). Other libraries de-link even sooner. Under absolutely no circumstance would a library lend personal data to a researcher or sell it to anyone, anywhere. It would take an egregious hack to obtain library records, and even if that succeeded, the data would be thin.

Library privacy ethics have been shaped by privacy incursions on political actors—from Communist union organizers to Viet Nam War protesters—offenses mostly perpetrated by government agents. These professional tenets were established as early as 1939 and have been sharpened over the decades since: The Library Bill of Rights, the Code of Ethics for Librarians and the Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records.

But as Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition and exploitation of Facebook data makes glaringly evident, neither entity embraced the user privacy ethics that librarians do. While Cambridge Analytica likely violated Facebook’s terms of service, Facebook’s privacy regulations are weak enough to invite manipulation.

Search engines and data sets sold to libraries usually still work in ways that librarians understand. Library vendors expose their search engine functions so that librarians share a role in weighting and ranking mechanisms to optimize responsiveness and reliability. CUNY librarians, for example, spend hours improving the performance of the Primo search tool, sold by ProQuest and branded for CUNY as OneSearch.

Commercial search engines and social platforms, though, are another story. The search engines powering Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Facebook rank results in veiled patterns. Their algorithms are trade secrets. Their ranking priorities are unannounced, yet pliable by advertisers. Commercial search engines target ‘end users,’ the searchers themselves, to become direct market consumers of information, without mediation or representation by librarian intermediaries.

What has this shift wrought?

A landscape where money can buy results. Big political results. Without librarians (or similarly aligned allies) checking for search engine neutrality, without systematic critique of the value and biases of data sets licensed for research use, political and economic predators will prevail upon both casual and expert researchers. News and information are re-shaped as propaganda. Search results and data sets monetized are manipulated, targeted, and weaponized.

With Cambridge Analytica’s application of Facebook data, we see Big Money romping around the information market, tweaking social platforms, falsifying news reports, and corrupting search results to seed and to exacerbate political opinion.

If Facebook were run by librarians this would never happen.

OK, maybe not never happen, but it’d be way less likely.


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: collage by Katherine Pradt; book by Calsidyrose via Flickr; rubber stamp font by Rebecca Simpson, rebeccasimpsondesign@gmail.com, via dafont.com. All components shared under CC0 license by their creators.

About the Author

Prof. Polly Thistlethwaite is CUNY's Interim University Dean for Library Services.