It started with a bunch of college kids wanting to see photos of each other online back in 2004. Now, Facebook is among the most valuable companies in the world, with a market cap of around $450 billion. The social media behemoth boasts 2.2 billion active monthly users, and did $13 billion in revenue for the last quarter of 2017. In 2018, it is poised to gobble up a larger share of advertising dollars than ever before.
As a function of its user reach and centrality to our digital world, Facebook seems unstoppable…
Along with a handful of companies like Apple and Alphabet (owner of Google), Facebook is as much a part of our culture as it is a form of commerce. Other social media networks provide innovative ways to communicate with each other and distract ourselves. Facebook, however, is central to many folks’ online identities.
But there are risks and costs to all this as well. Facebook has received headlines for very different reasons over the last year. Most notably, the social media giant is increasingly recognized as a global political force – one that could impact national elections here and abroad – as well as an unparalleled tool of mass surveillance. That Facebook’s usage is entirely voluntary and, to most users, appears harmless only increased the recent backlash that the company is not public utility. Facebook may connect you to your friends, but it is not necessarily your friend.
Most notably, Facebook has been thrust into the center of political scandals, including the Russia interference and alleged collusion that still hover in the background of the 2016 presidential election. More recently, Facebook has been at the center of a firestorm about the possible use of its data by a third-party company, Cambridge Analytica, to create what one whistleblower called a “psychological warfare tool” to help Trump in the same election.
There is no magic algorithm that allows Facebook to know your deepest, darkest secrets.
The storyline read like a spy thriller…
As initially reported, Cambridge Analytica gathered personal information on millions of Facebook users (and future voters) using an online polling company as a cutout. Then, its genius algorithms were implemented to micro-target voters with memes and storylines that pushed a pro-Trump agenda (“Lock Her Up!”).
The media narrative was that Cambridge Analytica engaged in a massive, illicit digital brainwashing campaign that helped Trump win. That got a lot of clicks online for the first few days, but it didn’t hold up for long.
Questions quickly emerged as to whether Cambridge Analytica even used the data. And more important, there was an enormous hypocrisy at the center of the outcry. Barack Obama’s presidential re-election team – with a wink and a nod from Facebook – used similar data back in 2012.
Big business loves big regulation, with all its anti-competitive added costs.
It is difficult to stay abreast of the latest election conspiracy theory, but so far James Comey, Russia, and Facebook have all been held responsible for Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump.
For Facebook, however, the dust has not yet cleared. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been making the rounds, trying to convince the public that his powerful company is a force for good, and that it treats the privacy of its users with the utmost seriousness.
It has not had the intended effect. While Cambridge Analytica was nowhere near as important or effective as the alarmists claimed a few weeks back, Facebook is certainly collecting a vast, growing trove of data on its users. And of course it monetizes that information.
There is no magic algorithm that allows Facebook to know your deepest, darkest secrets. And claims of “weaponizing social media” information for political purposes are largely hysteria. But that may not always be the case.
Facebook does have tremendous power over the direction of political conversations. It can change its terms of service (which few of its users read anyway) to elevate content it likes, while censoring ideas or stories it finds offensive or problematic. The pile of evidence is growing that Facebook has a political bias toward the left, that this tendency is top-down, and that it can steer perception from behind the anonymity of back-end website algorithms.
The public has taken notice. Facebook is a tool, one that can be used for any number of purposes. Senior management at Facebook has certainly been aware of this for a long time…
A recent Buzzfeed article reported that Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president and trusted senior adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in an internal memo on June 18, 2016:
We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.
Clearly, there are senior managers at Facebook who understand that their company has social costs and political implications, and that their collection of data is not always as straightforward as they would have the public believe. More than that, the top ranks of the world’s biggest social media platform take a fatalistic, ends-justify-the-means attitude about the consequences of their technology for real human beings. Bosworth also wrote:
So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.
Given the recent negative press, Facebook executives have been engaging with the media and their users… looking for a positive public relations spin.
Calls for government regulation, including from Zuckerberg himself, are one approach that has been floated. Of course, big business loves big regulation, with all its anti-competitive added costs. And if Facebook wants to avoid charges of a monopoly down the line, getting in good with the federal government now is a smart approach.
Ultimately, it’s not just Russian election hackers and shady political analytics teams that should concern us about Facebook. The company itself is a powerful entity with implications well beyond the corporate sphere.
Most Americans give it their information freely and without a second thought, failing to recognize that, even with social media, there is no such thing as a free lunch. As Tim Cook of Apple recently noted, for Facebook, customers are the product.
How Facebook chooses to use that product – not just to make money but to manage mass perception – is a subject that deserves much more of our attention.
(Disclosure: The author owns stock in Facebook.)