There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

That old saying came back to haunt me yesterday as I watched Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg testify in front of a congressional committee about security breaches on the popular social media site.

Facebook, like many other social media companies on the internet, offers free accounts to people. All one has to do is provide an email address and lots of personal information, such as a phone number, gender and birthday. Some sites require more information. Some less.

The ultimate goal of any social media site is to gather as much data about users as possible in order to sell advertising to businesses that want to reach specific demographics.

For example, a Facebook advertiser can specify who gets its message. The business can select audience by location, gender, age and lifestyle preferences.

All this sounds wonderful.

But there’s a very dark side to a company like Facebook possessing so much information about its customers.

We learned recently that every time we “like” something on Facebook, sophisticated software is able to analyze personality traits and predict with eerily successful accuracy how the user thinks.

The Trump administration used technology administered by Cambridge Analytics. The company created personality profiles for voters. Then they took that information to target individuals with specifically tailored content favorable to Trump.

It’s unclear how big a role personality profiling played in Trump’s election, but many think the practice helped considerably.

Like many Americans, I have given up on protecting my privacy. I have been led down the primrose path called the internet far too long and given out far too much personal information to think my privacy remains intact.

And, I certainly can’t count on Congress to do much about it. Most of the Senators questioning Zuckerberg Tuesday had no clue about what they were talking about.

Sen. Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerberg, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerman explained patiently.

Duh.

If the information gathered by social media sites was used only for advertising purposes, I wouldn’t be as bothered.

Unfortunately, these sites have become so sophisticated that they now have the ability to influence national elections.

Even armed with this knowledge, I doubt that many people will rush to their computers or smart phones to delete their social media accounts.

Nevertheless, I plan to be much more selective in the future about how much information I provide online social media sites. Better late than never, I guess.

In retrospect, I should have remembered that something offered for free always has a pricetag of some sort.

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Steve Robertson is owner and publisher of the Waccamaw Publishers family of community newspapers

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