We learned two things after Facebook staggered through one of its worst months since the company’s founding. First, Mark Zuckerberg’s supposed presidential hopes are over before they even had begun. Second, Facebook and its peers appear to realize they can no longer hide behind their claims they are merely “technology platforms.” Just as Uber is a transportation company, Facebook is a media company – with all the privileges and more importantly, responsibility.
While continuing to grow and reap impressive profits, Facebook focused, politically, on staying “free,” or, as Ben Smith of Buzzfeed argued earlier this month on “playing small-ball politics of regulation.” The tech company’s purported social mission got lost in the weeds while Facebook leveraged its surging K Street influence to steer clear of regulation. It worked, for a time, but Facebook’s freewheeling advertising platform has now been linked to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “Sad!” for Facebook, as now it is mired in scandal over a $100,000 ad buy: one that allowed a foreign power to have some influence in a U.S. election. Defenders of the company simply infer that such campaign was small pickings and “The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the U.S. presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.” However, the damage is done.
Now Facebook and other leading tech companies are facing increasing chatter about anti-trust litigation, as advocates and leaders from both the left and right have become tired of what they see as these firms’ sprawling influence and unstoppable economic might.
If Facebook and its ilk had focused more on social responsibility in the first place, these companies might not find themselves immersed in their current public relations nightmares. The easy, knee-jerk reaction would be to press ahead as if nothing has happened and line up surrogates to imply that criticisms of the company are unfair.
Well, in 2014 it was not exactly fair for Greenpeace to tar Lego’s reputation through its association with Shell. But a video showing an Arctic and Lego building-block landscape becoming flooded with petroleum scored millions of views. Lego ditched a longtime partnership with the energy company, developed a rigorous corporate responsibility agenda and is now seen by many as a forward-thinking, purposeful brand. The company partners with NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund and has promised to invest $160 million in sustainable materials research. And as a result, Lego’s reputation not only rebounded quickly, but it also ranks worldwide as one of the world’s most respected brands by adults and kids alike – and is making a lot of money while also exuding innovation and of course, solid building block fun.
Facebook’s sole purpose, in contrast, appears to ask for a few bucks here and there to promote your posts on Facebook and Instagram. If the company is truly focused on a social or community purpose, that mission is invisible.
Any social mission and purpose now seem vacant within the largest tech titans. Google’s “Don’t be evil” IPO promise seems laughably quaint. But despite recent setbacks, Google and Amazon could very well salvage their reputations after some wound-licking. Uber, relatively speaking, is in the intensive care unit, but with new leadership, it could recover, provided it finally starts making a profit.
But the “social network” is in a league of its own, and not one other companies wish to join.
Facebook has suffered a massive body blow from which its reputation will need a long time to recover. While the company has long claimed it is been building a “global community,” it has meanwhile unleashed both rhetoric and attorneys in its quest to avert any designation as a media company. However, it does not take a graduate from a top law school to understand that in appearance and function, it is absolutely a media giant. Facebook would have been wise to allocate more resources upfront to the challenges of hate speech and “fake news.” These should be top goals for a community-builder too.
The company was clueless as it allowed advertisers to not only target its users by race, but also by “ethnic affinities,” which of course, means that those same groups can also be excluded from marketing campaigns, breaking fair housing laws. Then, of course, it turned out that it was possible to target posts to groups including “How to burn Jews,” “Jew hater,” and those whose field of study included “why Jews ruin the world.” All right, maybe there were only 2,274 people in this “affinity group,” but ProPublica claimed those categories were ripe for targeting (they sure were not designed for excluding) until they contacted Facebook and the company took them down.
Unfortunately for Facebook, rather than handle these challenges head-on, its response for the most part is one of defensive legalese, as in a description of its “information operations” as a directive to ensure that “authentic activity matters.” And in a recent post, Facebook’s chief operations officer, Sheryl Sandberg expressed what looks like inauthentic shock – rather unbecoming for a company that is reputed to hire the best and the brightest:
“We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way – and that is on us. And we did not find it ourselves – and that is also on us.”
As Keith Collins of Quartz pointed out, the outcome is a tired argument reminiscent of the National Rifle Association’s mantra during the 1990s:
Facebook’s stance recalls a bumper sticker slogan that was popularized in the 1990s by the National Rifle Association: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Facebook didn’t spread misinformation and propaganda; the Russians did.
That Russian ad campaigns should have been flagged by Facebook’s sophisticated technology, one that the company has long been quick to tout. And the company should have conducted itself like a media company, disclosing who pays for paid placements. If Facebook followed political ad disclosure laws, like those seen on television, the company could have avoided the humiliation of headlines screaming about being grilled by Congress.
Instead of spending more money on lobbying, Facebook could have diverted much of that money on resources that could have examined the company’s business model and technology and understand how it could be exposed to risks such as nefarious ad buys. If the company had agreed to hold itself to the same standard as media companies, it could have avoided falling prey to those engaged in racial profiling, hate speech and fake news. But Facebook’s leadership chose to dodge responsibility and is now spending far too much time and resources trying to explain its way out of this self-inflicted controversy.
If the company had followed the Global Reporting Institute’s reporting framework – particularly related to risk assessment – as meticulously as it has trying to persuade regulators about what kind of company it is and how it should be treated, the company’s board and executive team would have had their eyes open to potential threats. In a nutshell, GRI screams out risk, whether they are related to anti-corruption, social impacts and financial value drivers, red flags could have been identified.
Furthermore, Facebook again falls back on its pat answer that it is primarily a “technology platform” when it comes to describing its role as to how it engages with the community. As the company’s sustainability manager explains:
“Nonprofits are doing amazing things on our platforms to advance sustainability and address climate challenges by taking action at both the local and global levels.”
In this world, that is not good enough. Facebook needs to stop talking about its platform, because as it stands, forces of both good and evil are leveraging the company’s technology. The company needs to show that it can support and work with community groups and NGOs to solve these problems. The company may want to take a break from “building” and start “engaging.” If the company is doing that, it is not obvious. And as a result, the company with a mission that strives “to build community and bring the world closer together” has allowed itself to be known as one that was harnessed to tear some people down and drive others further apart.
Image credit: JD Lasica/Flickr