The biggest social media outfit on the planet is in desperate grovelling mode. Legislators and regulators around the world are demanding answers. Facebook users are peevish and distressed. Mark Zuckerberg is trying to look contrite, but it isn’t going very well. On Wednesday, his company put out a statement that began: “Protecting people’s information is the most important thing we do at Facebook.”
Well, not exactly. Selling people’s information is the most important thing they do at Facebook. It’s the basis of their business model. It is how Mr. Zuckerberg became one of the world’s richest (and now most besieged) men.
And everybody was okay with that – for a while. Giving up our personal data seemed like a small price to pay for access to all the time-wasting features that Facebook has to offer. We conveniently forgot the first rule of marketing: If the product is free, the real product is you.
But now we’re not okay. We’re worried about the data and how it’s being used. We’re worried about the fake news that Facebook can’t seem to stop. The cascade of revelations, about fake news, and about the casual way people’s data have been distributed to political operators, strikes at the heart of the company’s claims to virtue. Selling us to pop-up advertisers is one thing. Selling us to sleazy political operators, some of whom may work for Donald Trump, is something else. No wonder there’s a growing #deletefacebook campaign. One of its backers is Brian Acton, who recently sold his company, WhatsApp, to Facebook for US$16-billion. “It is time,” he tweeted Tuesday.
Like many internet companies, Facebook marketed itself as a benevolent enterprise that was good for everyone. It promised to build community and bring the world closer together. That vision of techno-utopia is undoubtedly making people more cynical about what it’s really up to. Facebook’s woes are playing into fears that we are being manipulated by dark forces that are unaccountable and unidentified. We feel as if we’re losing control – not just of our privacy but of information flows, of the internet, and maybe of our lives. It’s hard to see how Mr. Zuckerberg is going to restore confidence that Facebook really does have our best interests in mind.
The Cambridge Analytica story is huge trouble for Mr. Zuckerberg because it is being framed as a cautionary tale about democracy itself being hacked. “Facebook was hijacked, repurposed to become a theatre of war,” the Guardian wrote breathlessly. “It became a launchpad for what seems to be an extraordinary attack on the U.S.’s democratic process.”
In fact, the Guardian’s take – derived from extensive interviews with Canadian data whiz kid Christopher Wylie – is for the most part pure hype. CA acquired its Facebook data legitimately, in much the same way as the Obama campaign acquired its data. (When it was Barack Obama, nobody cared.) CA promised Mr. Trump’s backers that it knew how to combine the data with sophisticated psychographics in order to to craft specific micromessages aimed at influencing individual voters. This extraordinary claim was rubbish. In fact, it’s not known if the Facebook data were ever used by the Trump campaign at all. Cambridge Analytica is no sinister Big Data mastermind. According to vox.com, many people considered it to be “sort of a joke.”
Personally, I think Facebook is being scapegoated by people who worry that sinister influences are corrupting the democratic process. (They are – but these influences are operating in plain sight, not in back rooms full of 28-year-old data wizards.) Having said that, I’m no fan. I do not think that Facebook is a force for social good. Studies show Facebook makes people lonely and depressed. Like other social media, it replaces real communities with online ones, and real connections with the illusion of connection. It doesn’t so much build community as build addiction, and it does this very well.
“The tools that we have created today are starting to erode the social fabric of how society works,” former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya told CNBC. He said that social media exploits “our own natural tendencies in human beings to get and want feedback. ... That feedback, chemically speaking, is the release of dopamine in your brain ... I think if you get too desensitized and you need it over and over and over again, then you become actually detached from the world in which you live.”
Maybe it’s not just Facebook that’s a problem. Maybe it’s the entire business model of the internet. So long as we’re the product that’s for sale, they’ll do anything to keep us hooked.