WE HAVE BEEN told countless times how Facebook is not like other companies. That it is not so much a profit-seeking enterprise than an ennobling force meant to make the world ‘more open’ and ‘connected’. But as the events of last year have shown, this isn’t necessarily the case.
The last two years have been a public relations disaster for Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to fix this by embarking on tours of ‘apology’ and ‘listening’ and promising to be less sloppy about issues of privacy and propaganda. But in private, we know now, Facebook has been doing something else entirely. Hidden in the sheep’s clothing of lofty ideals and nerdy neologisms, Facebook is, it turns out, just another corporate wolf. Cover- ups, smear campaigns, lobbying—none of this is beneath the company.
A recent New York Times investigation describes in detail how the company has been downplaying, perhaps even burying, the effects of propaganda and meddling in US elections, while also lobbying with politicians, and even hiring a consultancy firm to attack rival companies and critics. One of the darkest parts of the report describes how Facebook has been working to paint its critics as anti-Semitic (Zuckerberg and the COO Sheryl Sandberg are Jewish), while also indulging in a few anti- Semitic conspiracy theories themselves. The report alleges the company was helping spread rumours that the billionaire George Soros, a frequent target of the anti-Semitic far right, was behind anti-Facebook campaigns. It is quite remarkable when you consider it. Facebook—which has in the recent past made cracking down on fake news one of its priorities—hires a consultancy firm, Definers Public Affairs, according to the report, which in turn through its affiliate, a conservative news website called NTK Network, runs some dodgy news of its own to smear Facebook’s rivals. These stories are then picked up by other more popular conservative outlets like Breitbart. Facebook has of course denied several parts of the report and it recently ended its relationship with Definers without explanation.
What exactly is going on at Facebook? It was supposed to be a new company for a new age, one that was based on human connection and friendship. It has of course had unparalleled success—a customer base larger than the population of China and annual revenues ($40.7 billion in 2017) larger than the economies of most countries. And yet here it is, facing a reputational meltdown.
Facebook deals in that most prized of modern commodities: data. More than any other traditional company, it is dependent on people. It needs people to trust the platform, to return again and again to create and share data. For all its billions of dollars of market worth, its real value—that people go online and spend time on it—is intangible. It cannot afford people quitting in panic over the dangers of handing Facebook their data.
Zuckerberg, so far, along with a narcissistic belief in its virtue of connecting the world, has used Facebook’s vast treasure troves of personal data to embark on a business growth mission. He now needs to pause and recover people’s trust. No computer algorithm can do that.
But it isn’t just about a crisis of confidence in Facebook. It isn’t just an issue of worrying about whether a platform is unscrupulous or not. There is also a larger question about the promise of such tools. Before the likes of Facebook came along, no one had quite imagined the need for something of this nature. We didn’t quite know what exact need a company of this type catered to.
Facebook had promised to connect the world. It has gone far beyond that. The platform is designed to cultivate net addiction, and this doesn’t necessarily enhance human interaction. So what exactly does Facebook stand for today? Zuckerberg needs to answer that question as he goes about regaining trust. Facebook has to start over.