We've allowed an data-gathering industry to flourish with very few consequences and responsibilities. Now we're learning just how badly that can end up.
A storm dubbed #DeleteFacebook is brewing in techie communities, on Twitter and – irony alert – on Facebook. The idea is this time is different from all the other times the social network has violated our trust. Co-founder of WhatsApp Brian Acton, who became a billionaire when Facebook purchased his app in 2014, tweeted Tuesday, “It is time. #deletefacebook.”
Cher did it, too: “2day I did something VERY HARD 4 me,” she tweeted, “today I deleted my Facebook account.”
Is this the beginning of a movement? Here’s the difficult truth: Holding Facebook accountable for data abuses through a mass walkout would be very hard because it is woven into so many lives. But Facebook members are not without recourse to help bring change. We should follow the money.
I agree enough is enough. In the last week, we learned Facebook allowed our likes, our religions, our network of friends – data that millions of us didn’t intend to share – to be weaponized in political campaigns. A political marketing firm that worked for the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, is in trouble for what it did with the data. But what’s really scary is that it didn’t have to hack into anything to get it. Facebook was designed to collect all that info and handed it over without policing how it was being used. Now Facebook’s having an overdue existential crisis about being a spy machine.
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I understand how quitting might feel satisfying. You’d no longer be adding to Facebook’s data trove. They can’t win if you’re not playing their game. (Some techies are even advocating a version of leaving that involves deleting all your Facebook data without deleting your account.) Just think of all the free time you’d gain back for your family, for exercise, or for reading The Washington Post. There’s even evidence less time in front of screens might make you happier.
But Facebook isn’t like other products you boycott. Last year’s #DeleteUber movement, which attracted an estimated 200,000, helped drive a management change at the start-up because it hit Uber’s bottom line. We don’t buy products from Facebook – we are its product. We’ve given it our information for free. And in North America, we were each worth $26.76 to Facebook in the fourth quarter of 2017.
Facebook became America’s fifth most-valuable public company (worth about $490 billion as of Wednesday) by selling advertisers highly targeted access to us. It takes data about what we and our friends do and then combines that with data from other places to make all sorts of inferences about us.
It’s true that Facebook needs our eyeballs to sell ads to marketers and is very attuned to how much time people spend looking at its apps. But you quitting – or even 200,000 people quitting – wouldn’t make much of a dent in its 2.2 billion sets of eyeballs. #DeleteFacebook doesn’t work as a phenomenon only among the elite – it would take tens of millions.
And while it’s easy to press the button to quit Facebook, it’s spectacularly difficult in practice. Facebook has a hold on us because of its network effect: Even if you don’t like Facebook, you might still need it to stay in touch with your mom, your second cousin or even your boss. They’d have to quit, also – and all their friends, too. Many people rely on Facebook to sign in to other websites, dating services and other apps.
There aren’t great alternatives, either. Several of the most popular other social apps in the United States – Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – are also owned by Facebook. People peeved at Facebook’s data practices have tried making new services, but none took off.
There have been many calls to boycott Facebook for past indiscretions. If we want the result to be any different this time, we need to address the broader problem.
Aside from a dramatic change of heart from founder Mark Zuckerberg, getting Facebook to reform what data it collects and how it uses it requires destabilizing its business. And that boils down to this: Making Facebook an unreliable or expensive way for marketers to reach us.
“The only way the boycott will be effective is if it creates enough reputational damage that regulation becomes a reasonable option or if advertisers leave en masse,” says Brayden King, a professor at the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management who studies how social movement activists influence corporate social responsibility and policymaking. Just the threat of either of those made Facebook’s stock price drop by 7 percent this week.
Companies proved from recent fights with the National Rifle Association and legislation targeting bathroom use by transgender people that they can be more finely tuned to public opinion than politicians. And some big advertisers have already walked up to the line with Silicon Valley. Unilever – one of the world’s largest advertisers, and the company behind brands from Dove to Hellman’s – recently threatened to pull ads from Google and Facebook because of “toxic content.”
Comments made by Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed in February sound mighty relevant in the light of Cambridge Analytica: “It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on well-being, on democracy – and on truth itself,” Weed said. “This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society.”
(Unilever didn’t respond to questions about whether it followed up on Weed’s threat, or how it views the Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica flap.)
And the ad industry already has an action force: an anonymous group called Sleeping Giants, which has been effective at getting advertisers to step away from Breitbart News and other outlets the group accuses of racist or sexist content. A member of Sleeping Giants who asked to remain anonymous says it doesn’t currently have plans to target Facebook, but it is watching closely. “What is clear now is they are being irresponsible with information. Advertisers need to be aware of that and ask themselves what they want to support,” he said.
Option B is more of a hammer: If governments force Facebook to change the way it uses data, advertisers may become less enamored with Facebook just because it won’t be as effective.
Current U.S. privacy laws go deep on areas like children and health data. But there’s no general-purpose privacy law. Some members of the U.S. Congress have this week renewed calls for Facebook – even Zuckerberg himself – to testify on the Cambridge Analytica case. But turning that into laws is a long, slow process. Not even last year’s massive Equifax hack got lawmakers to act.
The world will soon get one kind of control from the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which requires more transparency from companies about the data they collect and how they use it.
In the short term, Federal Trade Commission may also step in and fine Facebook. It happened to have an agreement in place with Facebook from 2011 that holds the social network accountable for incidents where its data gets shared without members’ explicit consent.
The regulation question is: What exactly should change? There will be many ideas floated in the months ahead. One intriguing argument is that policing data is more than just a Facebook problem, so we need an independent agency (beyond the FTC) to deal with it.
We’ve allowed an data-gathering industry to flourish with very few consequences and responsibilities. Now we’re learning just how badly that can end up.
And quitting Facebook alone won’t solve the bigger problem. The biggest consumer challenge of our era calls for a broader consumer movement. Tweeted another celebrity, Jim Carrey, “Who are you sharing your life with? #regulatefacebook.”
Geoffrey A. Fowler is The Washington Post’s technology columnist.