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What Zuckerberg should do
Facebook faces a reputational meltdown
This is how it, and the wider industry, should respond
Mar 22nd 2018 edition
Mar 22nd 2018
LAST year the idea took hold that Mark Zuckerberg might run for president in 2020 and seek to lead the world’s most powerful country. Today, Facebook’s founder is fighting to show that he is capable of leading the world’s eighth-biggest listed company or that any of its 2.1bn users should trust it.
News that Cambridge Analytica (CA), a firm linked to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, got data on 50m Facebook users in dubious, possibly illegal, ways has lit a firestorm (see article). Mr Zuckerberg took five days to reply and, when he did, he conceded that Facebook had let its users down in the past but seemed not to have grasped that its business faces a wider crisis of confidence. After months of talk about propaganda and fake news, politicians in Europe and, increasingly, America see Facebook as out of control and in denial. Congress wants him to testify. Expect a roasting.
Since the news, spooked investors have wiped 9% off Facebook’s shares. Consumers are belatedly waking up to the dangers of handing over data to tech giants that are run like black boxes. Already, according to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, a majority of Americans say they distrust social-media firms. Mr Zuckerberg and his industry need to change, fast.
The addiction game
Facebook’s business relies on three elements: keeping users glued to their screens, collecting data about their behaviour and convincing advertisers to pay billions of dollars to reach them with targeted ads. The firm has an incentive to promote material that grabs attention and to sell ads to anyone. Its culture melds a ruthless pursuit of profit with a Panglossian and narcissistic belief in its own virtue. Mr Zuckerberg controls the firm’s voting rights. Clearly, he gets too little criticism.
In the latest fiasco, it emerged that in 2013 an academic in Britain built a questionnaire app for Facebook users, which 270,000 people answered. They in turn had 50m Facebook friends. Data on all these people then ended up with CA. (Full disclosure: The Economist once used CA for a market-research project.) Facebook says that it could not happen again and that the academic and CA broke its rules; both deny doing anything wrong. Regulators in Europe and America are investigating. Facebook knew of the problem in 2015, but it did not alert individual users. Although nobody knows how much CA benefited Mr Trump’s campaign, the fuss has been amplified by the left’s disbelief that he could have won the election fairly.
But that does not give Facebook a defence. The episode fits an established pattern of sloppiness towards privacy, tolerance of inaccuracy and reluctance to admit mistakes. In early 2017 Mr Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that fake news had influenced the election as “pretty crazy”. In September
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