Face to face with Facebook

| November 20, 2019

Beleaguered social network Facebook is charging ahead with plans for world domination, in the face of falling public trust in its administration and multiple investigations by lawmakers in the US.

‘You’re probably the right person at the right time to take this beating,’ US congressman Juan Vargas told Mark Zuckerberg.

It was late October, and the Facebook founder was being grilled – again – by a US government body, this time the House Financial Services Committee.

Their inquiries were ostensibly related to the social media network’s proposed cryptocurrency Libra – a project which was also affected in the weeks prior to the inquiry, by withdrawals from major partners eBay, Mastercard, Visa, and Paypal, among others.

But – as is bound to happen with probes into Facebook – questions posed by US lawmakers drifted into other areas where the performance and ethics of Zuckerberg’s company have been under fire: fake news, political advertising, hate speech.

The overarching theme in this session of questioning was trust. After data breaches involving fifty million users, after the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, and after revelations that posts made on Facebook had, in fact, played a major role in life-of-death events, how could faith be restored in the social media giant, which claims the largest number of worldwide users?

Such events include the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and the tightening of the vice-grip of vicious despot Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

And so, at a time when trust in Facebook is at an all-time low, Zuckerberg has attempted to meet each serve swung at his company.

After admitting to Facebook’s role in fatal violence targeting the Muslim Rohingya minority (saying it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate”), Facebook created a dedicated Myanmar-specific team.

But its mea culpa verged on victim blaming – arguing that the rate at which hate speech and misinformation was reported by users was too low due to technical deficiencies (emphasis mine).

Putting the onus on users (and potential victims) of incendiary posts to report them before they get too widespread is a bad look – even if Facebook appears to be pre-emptively avoiding replicating its role in Myanmar by implementing the new policies it retroactively applied there, to developing countries with similar contexts to Myanmar.

Those countries might be new (or older) democracies who represent potential user bases for Facebook, but whose user base is unfamiliar with both social networks and basic standards of media literacy.

While some digital rights activists have cautiously applauded Facebook’s attempts to work closely with civil society in its emerging markets, they note that such attempts can seem like mere exercises in corporate branding.

In the US context, Facebook is attempting to work with credible news publications by introducing a “news tab,” partly to offset the fallout from its role in the spread of misinformation in the 2016 US elections.

The feature involves news curation by a team of human editors, but critics have already pointed to Facebook’s track record of implementing initiatives to work with news publishers before abandoning them.

At an earlier Congress hearing, when he was being grilled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April 2018, Zuckerberg famously declared that Facebook was a technology company, and not a media one.

But while Facebook knows that news won’t pay the bills, the reality is that regulations are needed in nation-states for Facebook and other social media platforms that govern their obligations for one of their increasingly important roles  as news organisations.

This holds true for both the United States and for nation-states like Myanmar, India, or Cameroon where, in Facebook’s own words, the consequences of the spread of fake news may be life or death.

The main consequences of the myriad grillings, probes, and public relations disasters plaguing Facebook appear to be contradictory. Among the slew of questions lobbed at Zuckerberg by the House Financial Services hearing in October, one from US congresswoman Madeleine Dean stood out:

“Why should Congress, regulators and the public trust you (Facebook),” she asked, “when it was creating what amounted to “the world’s largest bank…to a shadow sovereign government?”

Zuckerberg’s response – like the responses of Facebook to previous crises – was vague, defensive, and unclear, denying that Libra was anything but a simple payment system and hinting that Beijing posed the real cryptocurrency threat.

On the one hand Facebook’s stock price shows no signs of faltering, even if some of the financial consequences of its missteps may be severe. On the other hand, there is no way to quantitatively measure loss of faith in a company, and how it might affect Facebook’s megalomaniacal march to global domination in the long run.

This article was published by The Australian Institute for International Affairs.