We can't say we weren't warned. For decades, there have been red flags raised about threats to personal privacy, from George Orwell's 1984, with its admonitions against Big Brother, to Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" with its lyrics wondering, "Who's playing tricks on me?" Yet it still came as a surprise to many when the massive Facebook privacy scandal broke, laying bare the social network's privacy practices, exposing its misuse of personal data and uncovering pro-Trump shenanigans by the firm Cambridge Analytica that affected as many as 87 million people.
The backlash has been harsh. Facebook has been hauled into hearings by the U.S. Congress, where the company's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was required to testify in person, and the British Parliament, where lawmakers labeled the company a "morality-free zone" and complained it behaves like a "vampire squid," borrowing a famous description of Goldman Sachs during the financial crisis.
All that has had unpleasant, unintended consequences, opening the door to scrutiny of Facebook on other fronts. For instance, a New York Times investigation discovered how the company "has failed to eliminate imposter accounts masquerading as" Zuckerberg and his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, making it easier for shady characters to use phony Facebook notifications "to swindle Facebook users out of thousands of dollars."
Wow. If they don't watch out, Zuckerberg and Sandberg could turn into the Nigerian prince and princess of social media.
Maybe even more concerning for Facebook's top executives is that the platform is in danger of becoming a punch line. For example, Adweek reports on a new public-service campaign in Argentina featuring a commercial that "makes fun of both how much and how little Facebook knows about women." It's never good for business when the public is laughing at you, especially for a company founded by someone who was worried for so long that he and his invention wouldn't be taken seriously.
It's too early to assess the damage caused by Facebook's privacy and data fiasco, but there's one casualty, at least temporarily: According to Bloomberg News, executives have decided to postpone the introduction of Facebook's internet-connected home products that would compete against offerings from Amazon and Google. (Hey, Alexa, play a sad song for Facebook on a tiny violin.)
A protest movement to "delete Facebook" doesn't seem to have yielded much in the way of results as yet; the company says it added 70 million monthly active users in the first quarter of 2018, bringing the total to 2.2 billion. That quarterly report described robust growth for Facebook's mobile advertising, which now accounts for 90 percent of the company's ad revenue.
Ah, advertising -- the crux of the matter. That's because, in the end, its advertisers, not users posting videos of their pets and wishing each other a happy birthday, who are "the company's customers," writes Kevin Roose in the Times.
"And as long as Facebook is still working for advertisers -- in other words, as long as the company is able to deliver targeted ads with a better return on investment than any other platform except, possibly, Google -- there's no reason for them to go elsewhere," Roose concludes.
Madison Avenue votes with its dollars, as has been demonstrated time and time again, most recently when two dozen blue-chip brands fled Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News after she mocked a Parkland, FL, high school student. Marketers and their agencies weren't spending money with Facebook until the early adopters of the platform were joined by tens of millions of everyday consumers. That's why Facebook has become so powerful and Friendster and Myspace became answers to trivia questions. And it suggests they'll keep supporting Facebook financially until that begins to change.
You could make a case that advertisers who are Facebook clients are enabling Facebook's haphazard handling of user data or endorsing its carelessness that apparently helped a hostile foreign power subvert democracy and interfere in our presidential election. But it may be more accurate to say that it's Facebook's users who are doing that, like by like, share by share, and if they want things to change in any significant way they're going to have to make their opinions known, and soon.
Facebook has promised to make some major changes, most notably a centralized way for users to control their security and privacy settings. There may be additional improvements in response to new, wide-ranging European online privacy rules, under the banner of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), that take effect this month.
Will that be enough to quell the disquiet that's vexing Zuckerberg and friends? Or will users be getting not much more than a pig in a (you should pardon the expression) poke?
If this column were a post on Facebook, here's where you'd see the emojis for Like, Love, Ha-ha, Wow, Sad and Angry. But it's not, so we'll just have to imagine them -- just as, I fear, we'll have to imagine Facebook addressing its data difficulties in any way that would bring meaningful relief to concerned users.
Editor's note: Look for the next Stuart Elliott Report -- a "20 Questions" column -- on Wednesday, May 23.
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