Facebook's Brand Is Becoming the Uber of Social Media, and That's Not a Good Thing
Once upon a time less than five years ago every startup in existence pitched itself as the Uber of whatever it did. Nobdy frames their startup that way anymore. An ever unspooling series of scandals running the gamut from raunchy corporate culture to deliberately evading municipal regulators and alleged theft of trade secrets led to the ouster of Travis Kalanick, who now lives in exile and is remembered as the CEO who yells at his lowest-paid employees when they voice a complaint.
Facebook and its famously boyish founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear to be spiraling toward the same branding calamity. The corporation and the man have consistently denied or downplayed Facebook's role as a chief purveyor of Russian misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. An avalanche of new problems is burying Facebook with revelations that its loosey-goosey privacy rules allowed Cambridge Analytica, the company at the center of the scandal surrounding clandestine Russian involvement in the 2016 election, to "harvest'' data from up to 50 million people without their permission (or, in the vast majority of cases, their knowledge) to sharpen the 2016 presidential campaigns of, first, Ted Cruz, then Donald Trump.
The reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal is must reading no matter how burned out you are on politics and scandals. It reveals that Facebook operates a lot like a bar that doesn’t check ID -- if you can pay for your drink, you get served and what happens after that is not their worry. In this instance, Cambridge Analytica -- the data research firm owned by Steve Bannon and billionaire Robert Mercer, the same pair who brought us Breitbart News -- hired a Cambridge University professor, Alexander Kogan, to entice Facebook users to download an app that vacuumed up their personal information as well as their Facebook friends.
The data was supposed to be used for academic research but, as we know now (and Facebook has known for a long time but told nobody), it was used to draw exquisitely detailed profiles of American voters to guide how they were pitched during the 2016 campaign. Facebook is defensively arguing what is looking like one of the largest data breaches ever is not, in the narrowest possible sense, a data breach. As they explain it, everyone who dowloaded Kogan's app agreed to surrender their data, but Kogan used the data he acquired in violation of his agreement with Facebook.
That is something like telling a person who believes they have been robbed they are really victims of an embezzlement, so calm down and realize it isn’t Facebook’s fault. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s outgoing chief of security, seems to be among the many people skeptical of this explanation. According to The New York Times, Stamos has resigned from Facebook because of “internal disagreement rooted in how much Facebook should publicly share about how nation states misused the platform and debate over organizational changes in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.”
Stamos advocated disclosing more about how the Russians rigged Facebook and he advocates trying harder to keep them out of the upcoming elections. Zuckerberg, you will recall, in November 2016 dismissed as a “pretty crazy idea” that Russians had used Facebook to spread fake news. That was the same month Stamos’s team had already confirmed the Russians had done exactly that.
Stamos, who once oversaw 120 people, was all but fired in December and left to oversee a staff of three.
Zuck will be flushed from his comfort zone.
The fall from grace of Facebook and huge social media companies in general (Twitter is better know known for Russian bots than earnest public debate) is likely to result in more regulation and more energetic scrutiny from regulators. Lawmakers in the U.S., U.K. and EU are clamoring for Zuckerberg personally to testify before investigating committees. Zuckerberg has only dispatched other executives to do that, and their testimony has been widely seen as evasive.
“I will be writing to Mark Zuckerberg asking that either he or another senior executive from the company appear to give evidence in front of the committee as part our inquiry,” British lawmaker Damian Collins, head of a parliamentary committee that has been investigating Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, said to The Washington Post. “It is not acceptable that they have previously sent witnesses who seek to avoid difficult questions by claiming not to know the answers.”
U.S. lawmakers seem intent on hearing from Zuckerberg himself.
“They say ‘trust us,’ but Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said in a statement.
Being hauled in front of congressional committees for a public grilling is just the unpleasant beginning for Zuckerberg and his company. Public outcry is likely to give new momentum to legislation to regulate political advertising on social media just as it is regulated in legacy media. Equally likely is heavy pressure on the Federal Trade Commission to enforce a 2011 consent order supposedly governing how Facebook protects release of user data to third parties. The order calls for fines of up to $40,000 per breach of privacy. The penalties for compromising the data of 50 million people could, at least in theory, run into the billions of dollars. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which led the public movement that resulted in the consent order and has since sued the FTC for failure to enforce it, argues this latest data loss underscores the need for a national data protection law and a standalone agency to enforce it.
“This is the consequence of the Federal Trade Commission’s failure to enforce the 2011 consent order with Facebook,” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Washington Post. “The United States needs a dedicated privacy agency and a comprehensive privacy law. The FTC can’t do the job.”
There are limits to how bad it gets when your brand is tarnished. Uber, after all, remains an enormous and growing company likely to only get richer. Kalanick, wherever he is and whatever he is doing, remains a billionaire. It's just neither is esteemed any longer or used as an example of excellence. Facebook, vastly larger and far more central to the daily life of many more people, is in no danger of going out of business, just as Zuckerberg is certain to remain one of the wealthiest people on Earth. How much it or he is respected or admired is much more uncertain.