As we've collectively attempted to figure out what combination of Russian intervention, filter bubbles, and good old fashioned stupidity led to us to elect Donald Trump, Facebook has spent a a lot of time in the hot seat. Last week's New York Times report revealing how Facebook did nothing to protect its users while a company called Cambridge Analytica gathered and exploited tens of millions of people's data for political purposes makes the seat even hotter.
According to reports, the political consultancy used innocuous-seeming personality quiz apps to get users to grant them permission to mine their profiles for useful data. Once users granted permission, Cambridge Analytica was also able to harvest the data of every one of the users' friends as well. The harvested data may have then been used to direct messages for political campaigns supported by the company, including the Trump campaign and the Brexit vote. Significantly, Facebook learned in 2015 that user data had been exploited and didn't bother to inform its users.
In a 2016 speech, Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica's now-suspended CEO, described the company's methodology thusly: “We’ve rolled out a long-form quantitative instrument to probe the underlying traits that inform personality. If you know the personality of the people you’re targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key groups.” In a video secretly shot by Channel 4 News in the U.K.,a Nix more candidly expands about the company's offline methods of political persuasion, including bribing candidates and officials with money and Ukrainian prostitutes.
It's not exactly shocking, and, at a semi-conscious level—we must all have clicked enough terms of service checkboxes to assume we were being used by someone(s), somewhere, but it's disturbing to hear it laid out so concretely, and more disturbing still that Facebook kept us in the dark about the data compromise. While Cambridge Analytica claims that none of the data was used to support Trump's campaign, and that all of it has since been deleted, there's a lot of information floating around that points to very different conclusions, including a video of company execs literally taking credit for Trump's victory. The silence from Facebook, meanwhile, has been almost deafening. Yesterday, five days after the Times story was first published, Zuckerberg made his first public comments on the matter, apologizing for the scandal in an interview with CNN. “This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry this happened," he said. "Our responsibility now is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
But what if it's already too late for the social media behemoth? What if they've lost our trust for good? What if we're really witnessing the demise of the first major social network this time? According to a separate story in the Times, longtime users are leaving the site—or at least attempting to—thanks in part to a #DeleteFacebook campaign that's currently trending on Twitter. Celebrities, influencers, and people like the co-founder of WhatsApp are encouraging us to abandon it (the latter for entirely selfless reasons, I'm sure). Ironically, I logged onto my own Facebook a few minutes ago to find this article about how to scrub your data from the platform prominently featured on my newsfeed after being posted by a friend. In the age of internet activism, to leave Facebook is to take a stand against corruption, greed, invasions of privacy and real fake news (a necessary phrase now). It's also a great way to seem woke in front of your friends when you inevitably post about your departure on your new social platform of choice.
But while activism and privacy concerns are the du jour reasons for the current calls for a Facebook exodus, real user loss for Facebook has been made possible by something much more foundational—Facebook is a shitty product and has been getting shittier for years. It's fallen into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone; it's the place where you get your news, the place where you find out about your ex-coworker's birthday party, the place where you take dumb personality quizzes that lead to British data scientists manipulating your deepest fears. It's overwhelming, and it doesn't help that everyone you've ever met is there. What began as an exclusive social network for college kids and later high school students has seen foundational changes (the news feed, the timeline, the disappearance of "poking"), but the biggest problem is that there's just too much going on, and they have never gotten the mix of content right. Consequently, there hasn't been anything to be excited about on Facebook in a long time. The company's original video content channel has been around for months now, and, to put it bluntly, no one has cared. Since launching the timeline feature in 2012, the company has shifted from a focus on friends to a focus on companies and businesses to a focus on news back to, as of this year, "friends, family, and groups." “You’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard—it should encourage meaningful interactions between people," Zuckerberg said in a statement earlier this year, but it might be too late for the company to go back to its roots.
Facebook is also, despite what Zuckerberg claims, completely saturated with ads. Every third thing on my timeline these days is something to buy, or not-very-subtle spon con, or a video that someone paid to show to me. That's not a social network. That's a media company—you know, the thing Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg vehemently claim Facebook is not.
Speaking of media companies, with the data breach outrage and the recent news feed algorithm changes, any hope of traditional media companies soft-pedaling Facebook's issues has gone out the window. Facebook hasn't played nicely with media companies for years, which hurt scores of publications that relied on the site for traffic and bent over backwards in the Great Video Pivot of '16-'17. Between dominating advertiser dollars and the frequent, manic algorithm shifts, publications may seize the high ground at the realization that Facebook may soon need them more than they need Facebook.
Wired published a report in 2016 that claimed Rupert Murdoch met with Zuckerberg to warn him that, if he didn't change his ways, he'd face a serious backlash." According to people familiar with the conversation, the two News Corp leaders accused Facebook of making dramatic changes to its core algorithm without adequately consulting its media partners, wreaking havoc according to Zuckerberg’s whims," reported Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein. "If Facebook didn’t start offering a better deal to the publishing industry, Thomson and Murdoch conveyed in stark terms, Zuckerberg could expect News Corp executives to become much more public in their denunciations and much more open in their lobbying."
A few months or even weeks ago it may have seemed unfathomable to abandon your Facebook account. Many of us have years worth of pictures, memories, contacts and information stored there, and those party photos from college aren't going to export themselves. But suddenly, not only are we all-too-aware that said information could be exploited in disconcerting ways, we're taking a second look and realizing what Facebook has come: a relic run by people lacking any clear vision except to appease shareholders. All the algorithm shifts and weird new features and plug-in apps make sense when you realize that Facebook has no idea who it is, or even what it wants to be. Not only does it have some major ethical and public relations problems to overcome, it has some serious soul-searching to do. Ask yourself this: if you weren't already on Facebook, would you sign up today? It's not fun, engaging, attractive or even much a community, and for years now it's resembled something more like a circular ad than anything that once made it appealing. This data breach debacle, and who it seems to have benefitted, has finally given people who'd gone lukewarm on Facebook a concrete, socially praiseworthy reason to bounce.
The 2010 biopic about Facebook -- yeah, remember that? -- boasted the tagline, "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." At the time, it fit like a glove. But it would appear that now, just eight years later, enemies are pretty much all Zuckerberg and Facebook have.