Over the past couple of weeks, social media platforms especially Facebook, Instagram and others, seemed to be flooded with photos of senior citizens. Actually, these were photos of users themselves that were processed through an application called 'FaceApp'. The app allowed users to become 70 to 80 year olds, become 20 years younger, swap their genders and do other things with the help of artificial intelligence.
The app was launched in 2017 by Wireless Lab for iOS and android phones. Then why did the app become so popular two years later, one may ask? This is because some Hollywood celebrities like Jonas Brothers, Drake and Dwayne Wade used the app on their own photos and posted these new photos on the timelines of their social media pages. This drove celebrities, athletes, businessmen, musicians and others to download the app and follow suit. As photos of all these celebrities began to pop up on social media platforms, commoners did not want to be left out. They did the same.
Within a week, several information technology (IT) users pointed out that while downloading the FaceApp application, most users are not reading the 'terms of service' before installation where the app gets access to the user's camera, photos, media and other files on the phone.
Forbes published an article on the app where they stated that by installing the app, users are granting "FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you. When you post or otherwise share User Content on or through our Services, you understand that your User Content and any associated information (such as your [username], location or profile photo) will be visible to the public."
The app drove US senator Chuck Schumer to express his "serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it". He called for an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the app.
Finally, FaceApp's founder, Yaroslav Goncharov, stated that user data and uploaded images were not being transferred to Russia but instead processed on servers running in the Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services. In another statement to TechCrunch, the company assured, "Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date".
As the dust gradually settles on the sudden FaceApp popularity, this episode seems to have taught social observers two things.
First, social media users seem to have learnt nothing from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that surfaced in 2018. The Cambridge Analytica firm was working for Donald Trump's presidential campaign as well as for Senator Ted Cruz ahead of the US Presidential elections of 2016. Through a seemingly benign personality test, the firm gained access to the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes.
The scandal and a few others after that had affected Facebook's popularity for quite some time.
Even after these, users of Facebook and other social media platforms do not think twice before downloading and installing a flashy new service or app that will allow them to learn themselves better, or change their photos in a certain manner, just so they can share this on their social media profiles in a bid to gain some likes and reactions from friends and other social media users.
The second thing that has been proven through the FaceApp incident is the staggering influence that collective social media activities tend to have on certain social media users. This is akin to 'follow the herd' or 'monkey see, monkey do, monkey hurt' statements from yesteryears, where a social media user sees something that a peer or acquaintance on his friend-list is doing. If the friend gets a lot of reactions or likes, the social media user decides to follow the same activity, subconsciously with a motive to get similar reactions.
Some challenges like the 'ALS Ice Bucket challenge' from 2014 had taken advantage of this tendency to generate public awareness about the Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) disease. But other challenges like the Birdbox challenge (users blindfolded themselves and tried driving a car or walk through a busy street), Tide Pod Challenge (users ate detergents), planking, Kiki challenge (where people got down from a moving vehicle on busy roads to sing and dance to Drake's 'In My Feelings' song) among others were downright dangerous for many social media users.
Social media platforms like Facebook and others have become the escape zone from reality for many young people as well as adults. These users need to remember that some activities on social media has the ability to change their lives in reality, often for the worse.