If you have yet to watch The Great Hack on Netflix, this documentary perfectly exemplifies the media-cum-technology-cum-political monster that Facebook has become. It narrates the story of Cambridge Analytica’s unethical data mining exercise for political gain in the US general election, and in many other national democracies. Following the outbreak of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began doing the rounds on Twitter in March 2018.
Two weeks ago, #DeleteFacebook trended again, with 54,000 tweets mentioning the tag as of Monday 14 October. It seems that Zuckerberg and his inner circle have learned very little, if anything, from the first round of deletions, after which 74 per cent of Facebook users took some steps to protect their privacy on the site.
Instead, Zuckerberg and his posse dove straight into the belly of the beast, having a ‘secret dinner’ with conservative politicians. Reported by Politico, the dinner was said to have agenda items that included free expression, ‘unfair treatment’ of conservatives, and potential partnerships. The discussion about free expression seems to be in direct contradiction to Facebook’s mini army of contracted content moderators, whose very job, like it or not, is to limit speech that is a little too free.
When questioned on his choice of dinner buddies during a House Financial Services Committee hearing, Zuckerberg stated, “I have dinner with lots of people across the spectrum […] hearing from a wide range of viewpoints is part of learning. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you do!” Not only does this flippancy entirely miss Facebook’s awkward history with right-wing propaganda, but by this logic, Zuckerberg should also be inviting the Dems for cocktails after legal proceedings. I can’t imagine there would be great warmth towards a guest who points out the specific “conflict of interest between Facebook’s bottom line and immediately addressing political disinformation,” as the letter sent by the committee’s Democrats to Facebook said.
To that, Facebook’s mighty leader has retorted that he, too, “worries deeply about an erosion of truth.” It’s not long before he adds that it is simply “something we have to live with.” This casual dismissal of the call for Facebook to begin fact-checking political—and other—communications only serves to prove that Zuckerberg isn’t quite in line with the power of the beast he has created.
Facebook is neither a media platform nor a news aggregator. It is neither a communication tool nor a market researcher. It is all of the above and more, rolled into one, and that alone means that Facebook needs to hold more accountability for the content disseminated on the platform. Why fact-checking in marketing communications is not yet commonplace is beyond me—a moment of silence for Boris Johnson’s Brexit Bus—but when one organisation is in control of audience segmentation, communications methods, media planning, and even the performance analytics, we must also, as consumers, remain aware of what this means for democratic media.
During the congressional testimony last Wednesday, where Zuckerberg was due to discuss Libra, he also faced a range of questions from congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about Facebook’s ties to white supremacist groups. “Could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and pay to advertise to them the incorrect election date?” she asked, proving her point by underlining that Facebook doesn’t fact check ads.
We already knew about the various privacy issues associated with Facebook. That, in isolation, has clearly not been enough for people to want to #DeleteFacebook. It certainly wasn’t for me, after I found the right settings to toggle with. But that was, and still is, very much the problem we know. The territory we are edging into now is that of the problems we don’t know; of Facebook shaping our collective subconscious through subliminal and targeted messaging, while at the same time blurring facts with fiction for business and, potentially, political gain.
This is why it might finally be time to #DeleteFacebook. Simply deactivating your account will not do, as the data remains stored and ready for you to log back in whenever you are in need of a quick meme fix. Deletion needs to be requested, would you believe, with a 90-day lead time before all data is completely wiped from Facebook’s servers. You must also remember to either delete or change the login credentials for any applications you may have linked to your account through Facebook Connect, for easy, single-sign-on login.
It is surprisingly difficult to delete Facebook, both from a process perspective and, somewhat, from a personal perspective. Every time I try to do it, I realise just how many Facebook tendrils are spread far and wide throughout my digital footprint, and how much I rely on it for research, information, and communications. “It’s not just a social media platform,” says Ifeoma Ajunwa, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cornell University, “but also almost like a meeting square.”
John Biggs of TechCrunch continues the ironic, historical-political analogy: “In the absence of a Town Square, we talk to ourselves. In the absence of love and understanding, we join the slow riot of online indifference.” It is this very indifference that will, most likely, keep Facebook afloat.
Facebook’s strained attempt to launch Libra, a globalised cryptocurrency, is evidence of cracks in its facade. Prominent brands in the payments industry, such as Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal have already backed out of supporting Libra, essentially rendering the currency defunct until Zuckerberg is able to outline some of the security implications of having consumers’ finances and marketing preferences under one roof. Does he plan to split the businesses, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has suggested? Or do we have a multi-industry, cross-sector monopoly on our hands? I’m not sure I want to keep to my Facebook profile until we know for sure. Are you?