2018 might be remembered as the year that people realized that the world might be better off without Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress in April to explain his company’s role in the 2016 election. Specifically, lawmakers were interested in the impact Cambridge Analytica may have had on the general election using data purchased from Facebook. Shortly before the Congressional grilling, the Intercept broke the story that Facebook has been providing information to ICE.
Now, the public and the government are left asking if Facebook can possibly be fixed?
Facebook thinks so.
In the months leading up to Zuckerberg’s testimony, Facebook announced a number of initiatives aimed at fixing the company. Even the most ambitious of their plans falls well short of necessary changes.
In July of 2017, as anger at Facebook over potential election interference was heating up, Zuckerberg offered vague solutions. Zuckerberg announced an initiative that would give group administrators more analytic tools. It would be up to the users to fix Facebook.
That clearly wasn’t good enough. In January, Zuckerberg told the New York Times that the newsfeed would now emphasize posts from family and friends over news. Later that month, the company announced it would be sharing news using an algorithm that calculates “trustworthiness.”
This too felt like too little too late. Shortly before Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony, Facebook released what was its most serious attempt to fix itself to date. In a post largely focused on election security, the company promised a four-pronged approach. Facebook intended to combat foreign interference, remove fake accounts, increase ads transparency, and reduce the spread of fake news.
Some of the concrete proposals in this plan include doubling the number of reviewers and moderators working for Facebook and the addition of tools meant to increase advertiser transparency. The company followed this up by freezing approval of new developer apps as the site was being overhauled.
There has been a clear evolution in the clarity and seriousness of Facebook’s proposals since the election, but these fixes simply aren’t good enough. The issue isn’t merely that “fake news” gets shared on Facebook or that particular types of posts need more oversight. Facebook’s ills are baked into the social network.
The product of Facebook is user data. It is the only way Facebook makes money. The only way people will pay for that data is if they can manipulate it.
We don’t know all the ways that Facebook is collecting our data, what data it is collecting, or who has access to it. While Facebook is willing to crack down on certain types of advertisers and has taken steps to monitor certain types of posts, it is not willing to make the structural changes that would be needed to truly fix Facebook. Just look at the questions that Zuckerberg wouldn’t answer during his testimony.
Zuckerberg could not tell Congress whether users can opt out of ad targeting. He would not identify a list of other firms that were sold data besides Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg was also unable to explain if or how users are tracked when they are offline or on other websites besides Facebook. This is just a sample of over a dozen questions the Facebook founder was unable to answer.
Simply freezing out Cambridge Analytica won’t fix the problem. Peter Thiel (perhaps best known as the man who killed Gawker) sits on Facebook’s board. Thiel is also the founder of Palantir. Palantir’s grand project is harnessing data for use by corporations and law enforcement. It was recently reported that Palantir employees worked with Cambridge Analytica employees on data that was harvested from Facebook.
As mentioned above, ICE has used Facebook data in their operations. They are not the only law enforcement agency to do so. Secret law enforcement requests for Facebook data were up 20 percent in 2017.
Will board members or the U.S. government be limited in their access to Facebook data? Will new partners be held to rigorous standards? If advertisers, board members, or government agents balk at privacy initiatives, where will Facebook land?
Data collection and ad sales are crucial to Facebook’s business model. The company brought in $27 billion of revenue in 2016. 97 percent of that money came from ads. Advertisers are Facebook’s real customers and without them there is no money.
Facebook doesn’t seem to be very good at anything besides their basic connectivity offered by their newsfeed and selling the data that generates. Facebook is bad at delivering news. We’ve yet to see Facebook’s promised “original content” make any waves. The ads are all they have.
Can we expect Facebook to sacrifice its profit for the greater good? Zuckerberg’s prolific silence in front of Congress gives us a hint, and it is not encouraging.
Could a social media product that serves its users instead of its advertisers be viable? Could it be as simple as a company “like Facebook” that operates with complete transparency and isn’t expected to perform quite as well in the market? Perhaps, but Facebook has shown no real interest in finding out.