I get asked from time to time what I think about what’s going on with Facebook, primarily my response to what seems like an endless series of blunders and errors as reported by the media. Facebook changed my life, so while I like to think I’m fairly objective, I can’t assume that I’m free from bias. But for those who care, here’s my biased take. In broad strokes: 1/ Facebook has made (and probably will continue to make) legitimate mistakes 2/ their mistakes, however, have been wildly blown out of proportion and misrepresented by the media 3/ they really should be more closely regulated by the government, maybe even broken up.
Last point first. You may have read Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes’ New York Times opinion piece where he advocates breaking up Facebook. This may surprise you, but I think it’s an idea that’s worthy of some consideration. I share more of Hughes’ general concerns about giant corporations than his specific criticisms of Facebook; philosophically, like him I’ve come to believe that anti-trust enforcement should extend beyond only caring about effects on consumer prices, that the domination of large companies and the resulting lack of competition has negative economic and societal effects, even if they have no (or even positive) effects on consumer prices. (Vox has a good piece on this subject, as does The Economist). I think the breakup of any massive company is at least worth consideration, including Facebook, but definitely not limited to it. Definitely including Amazon and Google.
Being in the startup world I can tell you first hand that the massive companies are changing startup culture. As you may or may not know, there’s a continuing decline in the creation of new businesses – as this New York Times article notes, in the last year for which they had data (2015), only 74% as many businesses were started as were formed in 2006. And the share of younger companies â€” less than one year old â€” in the United States has declined by almost half over the last generation. The article speculates why – the biggest corporations make it easy to eliminate or consume competitors and stifles entrepreneurship. It used to be that most startups wanted to go public. As former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos recently noted, “Silicon Valley used to be a place where the dinosaurs of the past were eaten by the faster, smarter competitors.” Now it seems that most startups want to be acquired. The impact of huge companies on competition is real.
That said, I’m not sure that breaking up Facebook is realistically possible, and more importantly, I doubt it would address the issues most people care about (Stamos talks a little more about it in that Twitter thread, and I largely agree), so even if it’s worth considering, I’m not sure what the point would be.
What would help is greater government oversight. If I were to guess (and I’ve never talked to anyone from Facebook about this so it’s a purely personal conjecture), I think Facebook would welcome government oversight, because it shifts the burden of outrage off of them. While I was Facebook we, as a matter of course, removed any content in Germany that espoused neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic views, because we were required to by German law. No one complained to Facebook about censorship, because it was the law. If the U.S. Government had similar content laws, I don’t think Facebook would complain about ceding control; I think they’d be glad that some of the burden of moderation would be off of them. As it is, people constantly complain about Facebook both over- and under-censoring, because they have to make the decisions themselves.
The problem is, the government will never do that because drafting rules that make everyone happy is impossible. It’s easier for the government to just criticize Facebook without actually presenting a solution. Media coverage of Facebook has been unfair in this exact way also. Almost every criticism of Facebook doesn’t actually specifically say what Facebook should do. They just criticize and say Facebook should do better. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that they don’t actually know what Facebook should do. Or if they thought about it more deeply, they would realize there’s no easy solution.
For example, The Ringer’s Victor Luckerson covers tech, and he has literally never written a single non-negative article about Facebook. Furthermore, his articles all share a common theme – pointed criticism, with no specific solutions.
Another common problem of media coverage of Facebook is that it focuses on hysteria without actually bothering to quantify the problem. This recent TED Talk that blames Facebook for Brexit is a prime example. All its evidence for Facebook’s influence is purely anecdotal. To be fair, it notes that it’s impossible to get the actual data from Facebook to quantify it, but that doesn’t stop the talk from making sweeping conclusions. It compares the effect of Facebook ads with the 19th century practice in Britain of literally buying votes with money, which is obviously absurd. But most importantly, again, as with almost all criticisms, it presents no actual solutions. Read it carefully. What’s it saying to do? It says Zuck and Sheryl shouldn’t want this (this I assume meaning Facebook allowing election influence). It says society shouldn’t allow it. And so… what? Don’t allow misinformation? How? Don’t allow fake ads? Facebook already instituted that. What is the talk asking for other than to shame Facebook?
This may also surprise you, but you among ex-Facebookers, the New York Times has the reputation for having the worst Facebook coverage. Worst not in terms of being critical, but in being bad journalism. It’s so bad that, and I know this sounds crazy, but it makes some sympathetic to Trump’s calling the Times “Fake News”. It’s that bad – someone appears to have a personal vendetta against Facebook. It’s not that their coverage strictly inaccurate – although it sometimes is. This story criticizing the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s involvement in education found a girl with epilepsy and literally made up the “fact” that her school’s involvement with CZI’s software set off her seizures. Online, the story now has a retraction that’s still not accurate – the girl had no involvement with the program whatever. If you take that into account, her inclusion in the Times story is incoherent, it’s literally invented. The only motivation seems to be to slam Zuckerberg, but they thew a good program – Summit Prep – under the bus in the process. You can read Summit and the districts’ response, but the story is “misleading and in several places, factually inaccurate.” That’s par for the course in how the Times covers Facebook.
In general, its coverage is consistently speculative in a way that puts everything in the worst possible light. This piece on the 10-Year Challenge thing that went around recently is probably the worst example – there is almost no reporting whatsoever, it’s a pure speculation piece the that challenge was somehow being used by Facebook to improve its facial recognition technology and uses that to invoke privacy fears. Based on nothing. You know it’s absurd because every time rival tech CEOs were asked about it, they dismissed it, accurately noting that if Facebook wanted face data to recognize they almost certainly had it already. Which I suppose is not much comfort if you have privacy concerns, but it does show the ridiculousness of the New York Times piece.
This piece on Facebook privacy is another example. It’s not that anything is strictly wrong in the article, it’s just that it’s consistently misrepresented and lacks context. I’ll give one example from the article (but it’s really the entire thing) – it notes that “Facebook also allowed Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada to read, write and delete usersâ€™ private messages, and to see all participants on a thread.” Sounds evil and devious. In truth, these are the standard permissions needed to integrate with a messaging system. The very day that this story ran, if you tried to install any Gmail add-on, it popped up a box asking for permissions to “read, write, and delete” your private Gmail messages. (The language has since slightly changed, although the functionality is the same.) Was the story strictly wrong about what Facebook allowed its integration partners to do? No. But it ignored that it required explicit user agreement, that it hadn’t been used in years, and that every messaging platform that integrates with third-party services for direct communication has the exact same permissions. There’s no outrage about Gmail’s privacy violations. There’s no context for understanding it at all, just the worst possible interpretation. That’s typical of all of the Times’ coverage of Facebook. Not wrong, but wildly misleading.
There is good coverage out there. This Wired story about the last 15 months at Facebook is excellent reporting. It’s appropriately critical of Facebook, but it’s balanced. The problem with balanced reporting though is that it doesn’t induce the same level of outrage, fear, uncertainty and doubt, though, so it’s not as enticing. For example, the Wired story points out an inconvenient truth: for all the outrage about Cambridge Analytica, it simply didn’t work. The data was not predictive of users at all. That fact seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Michael Lewis makes the same point in more detail in a recent podcast and in doing so indirectly criticizes the New York Times – he notes that most newspapers used to have an independent ombudsman or public editor who held the paper accountable for what they wrote. Like most papers, the Times have eliminated that position, but it means less accountability for what gets written.
Other good coverage includes this Radiolab story on content moderation at Facebook. It accurately presents the fundamental problem Facebook faces – no matter what line you draw, different groups will complain both that it’s too lenient and too strict. There should be no nudity? Facebook did that, then breastfeeding moms protested the Facebook offices (I remember when they came). Ban “hateful” attacks? As shown in the Radiolab story, radical feminists complain, saying such language is justified for the institutionally oppressed. The reason Facebook was so slow to react to false political ads is because conservatives were in arms about Facebook’s liberal bias. It is literally impossible to draw a satisfying line.
I realize my gripes of media coverage sounds a little bit like childish. When I say media coverage doesn’t contextualize anything or note how other companies’ data breaches / privacy violations / personal data harvesting are far worse than what Facebook does, it sounds like “everyone else is doing it too”, which is not an appealing defense. And Facebook’s success makes it a legitimate subject of criticism, even if others are doing it, that’s fair enough. But it’s still annoying – I still wish these criticisms were contextualized just a little bit more. Like, it kills me when celebs announce they’re quitting Facebook and sticking with Twitter. I assure you, whatever Facebook’s legitimate shortcomings, like with Russian influence or the dissemination of fake news, Twitter is *far* worse. They get a pass simply because they’re not as influential as Facebook, not because they do better. And I get it, that’s how it works when you’re on top, which is fine.
Anyway, that’s my take. Facebook probably is a little too powerful. But don’t believe everything you read about it. Especially from the New York Times.