SINGAPORE: One piece of received wisdom about Facebook is that the social media group knows precisely what it is doing with our personal data and its motives are dubious.
But in light of the allegations that Cambridge Analytica used personal data that had been harvested from the site, consider the not-so-reassuring alternative: Whatever its motives, Facebook does not know what to do. Its floundering response to growing public concern is a symptom.
The many faces of Facebook are part of the issue. At the centre, Wizard of Oz-like, is Mark Zuckerberg, whose lengthy public declarations are hidden behind a warm curtain of feel-good phrasing, like this from Jan 31:
One of the most important things we do is making sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being and for society overall.
The bottom line is unsurprising: Whatever the problem - even self-inflicted - Facebook is the solution.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE CORPORATE RESPONSE
Then there is the corporate line.
As the Cambridge Analytica story broke over the weekend, this boiled down, bafflingly, to a Bill Clinton-style debating point about the meaning of the word “breach”.
“The claim that this is a data breach is completely false,” posted Paul Grewal, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, on Saturday, in an update to its announcement of the suspension of the accounts of all those involved (including, counter-productively, the whistleblower Christopher Wylie). He said:
People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.
In the end, though, he deleted some of his other tweets on the question, “not because they were factually incorrect but because I should have done a better job weighing in”. “I just wish I was better about talking about these things in the reality of 2018,” he bleated.
We might all wish the same of Facebook. As it has grown, the group has become ever-more adept at lobbying and litigation. The Observer, which broke the story with the New York Times, says the network’s external lawyers warned the newspaper before publication that it was making “false and defamatory” allegations.
But it remains surprisingly poor at deciding how, when and what to say about questions that are fundamental to customers’ perception of the group - and who should say it.
Facebook has had time to prepare, after all. It first learnt of the allegation that Cambridge Analytica had broken its rules on using data from the network in 2015. However, Cambridge Analytica has denied using Facebook data in its model.
Facebook has more recently been assailed by waves of criticism — amply described in a recent investigation by Wired magazine — about its role in the crisis of fake news and election influencing.
“The reality of 2018” is now biting Facebook hard. There has never been a better time for Mr Zuckerberg to come out from behind his curtain and do some straight talking.
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