Facebook, along with other tech media giants, like Twitter and Google, broke the democratic process in 2016. Facebook also broke the trust of many of its users as scandal after scandal kept surfacing telling the same story in different ways – the story of user data and trust abused in exchange for growth and revenue.
The week before last, Mark Zuckerberg posted a long explanation on Facebook titled ‘Preparing for Elections’. It is the first of a series of reflections by Zuckerberg that ‘address the most important issues facing Facebook’. That post explored what Facebook is doing to avoid ending up in a situation similar to the 2016 elections when the platform ‘inadvertently’ became a super-effective channel for election interference of various kinds. It follows just weeks after Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg appeared in front of a Senate Intelligence hearing alongside Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey on the topic of social media’s role in election interference.
Zuckerberg’s mobile-first rigor oversimplifies the issues
Zuckerberg opened his post with a strong commitment to addressing the issues plaguing Facebook using the highest levels of rigor the company has known in its history. He wrote,
“I am bringing the same focus and rigor to addressing these issues that I’ve brought to previous product challenges like shifting our services to mobile.”
To understand the weight of this statement we must go back to how Facebook became a mobile-first company that beat investor expectations wildly. Suffice to say it went through painful years of restructuring and reorientation in the process. Those unfamiliar with that phase of Facebook, please read the section ‘How far did Facebook go to become a mobile-first company?’ at the end of this post for more details.
To be fair, Zuckerberg does acknowledge that pivoting to mobile was a lot easier than what it will take to tackle the current set of challenges. He writes,
“These issues are even harder because people don’t agree on what a good outcome looks like, or what tradeoffs are acceptable to make. When it comes to free expression, thoughtful people come to different conclusions about the right balances. When it comes to implementing a solution, certainly some investors disagree with my approach to invest so much on security.
We have a lot of work ahead, but I am confident we will end this year with much more sophisticated approaches than we began, and that the focus and investments we’ve put in will be better for our community and the world over the long term.”
However, what Zuckerberg does not acknowledge in the above statement is that the current set of issues is not merely a product challenge, but a business ethics and sustainability challenge. Unless ‘an honest look in the mirror’ kind of analysis is done on that side of Facebook, any level of product improvements will only result in cosmetic changes that will end in an ‘operation successful, patient dead’ scenario.
In the coming sections, I attempt to dissect Zuckerberg’s post in the context of the above points by reading between the lines to see how serious the platform really is about changing its ways to ‘be better for our community and the world over the long term’.
Why does Facebook’s commitment to change feel hollow?
Let’s focus on election interference in this analysis as Zuckerberg limits his views to this topic in his post. Facebook has been at the center of this story on many levels. Here is some context on where Zuckerberg is coming from.
Facebook’s involvement in the 2016 election meddling
Apart from the traditional cyber-attacks (which they had even back then managed to prevent successfully), there were Russia-backed coordinated misinformation campaigns found on the platform. Then there was also the misuse of its user data by data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, which consulted on election campaigning. They micro-profiled users based on their psychographics (the way they think and behave) to ensure more effective ad spending by political parties.
There was also the issue of certain kinds of ads, subliminal messages and peer pressure sent out to specific Facebook users during elections to prompt them to vote for certain candidates while others did not receive similar messages. There were also alleged reports of a certain set of users having been sent ‘dark posts’ (posts that aren’t publicly visible to all, but visible only to those on the target list) to discourage them from voting altogether.
It also appears that Facebook staff offered both the Clinton and the Trump campaigns to assist with Facebook advertising. The former declined the offer while the latter accepted.
We don’t know which of the above and to what extent each of these decisions and actions impacted the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections. But one thing is certain, collectively they did have a significant enough impact for Zuckerberg and team to acknowledge these are serious problems that they need to address, NOW!
Deconstructing Zuckerberg’s ‘Protecting Elections’
Before diving into what is problematic about the measures that are taken (or not taken) by Facebook, I must commend them for taking ownership of their role in election interference in the past and for attempting to rectify the wrongs.
I like that Zuckerberg has made himself vulnerable by sharing his corrective plans with the public while it is a work in progress and is engaging with the public at a personal level. Facebook’s openness to academic research using anonymized Facebook data and their willingness to permit publishing findings without Facebook’s approval is also noteworthy. Other initiatives such as the political ad transparency report, AI enabled fake account & fake news reduction strategy, doubling the content moderator base, improving their recommendation algorithms are all steps in the right direction.
However, this is where my list of nice things to say ends.
The overall tone of Zuckerberg’s post is that of bargaining rather than that of acceptance. Interestingly this was exactly the tone adopted by Sandberg as well in the Senate hearing earlier this month, down to some very similar phrases. This makes one question if everything isn’t just one well-orchestrated PR disaster management plan. Disappointingly, most of the actions stated in Zuckerberg’s post feel like half-measures; I get the sense that they aren’t willing to go the full distance to achieve the objectives they set for themselves. I hope to be wrong.
1. Zuckerberg focuses too much on ‘what’ and ‘how’, is ignoring the ‘why’
Zuckerberg identifies three key issues he wants to address in 2018: preventing election interference, protecting the community from abuse, and providing users with better control over their information. This clarity is a good starting point. In this post, he only focuses on the first issue. So I will reserve sharing my detailed thoughts on the other two for now.
What I would say for now is that the key to addressing all issues on Facebook is taking a hard look at Facebook policies, including privacy, from a mission statement perspective. In other words, be honest about ‘Why Facebook exists’. Users are annoyed, advertisers are not satisfied and neither are shareholders confident about Facebook’s future. Trying to be everyone’s friend is clearly not working for Facebook.
As such, I expected this in the opening part of the series. ‘Be better for our community and the world over the long term’ is too vague of a mission statement to be of any practical use.
2. Political Ad transparency report is necessary, but not sufficient
In May this year, Facebook released its first political ad transparency report as a gesture to show its commitment to minimizing political interference. The report allows one to see who sponsored which issue advertisement and for how much. This was a move unanimously welcomed by everyone and soon others like Twitter and Google followed suit. By doing this, Facebook hopes to allow its users to form more informed views about political causes and other issues.
Here is my problem with this feature. (Yes, I do view this report as a ‘feature’ of the new Facebook app which serves a very specific need: to satisfy regulators and media.) The average Facebook user is not the politically or technologically savvy consumer. They use Facebook to connect with friends and family and maybe play silly games now and then. The majority of these users aren’t going to proactively check out this ad transparency report or the political ad database to arrive at the right conclusions.
The people who will find this report interesting are academic researchers, campaign managers, and analysts. It is one more rich data point to understand campaign strategy and thereby infer who the target audience is. This could most likely lead to a downward spiral of more and more polarizing ads from parties across the spectrum.
3. How election campaigning, hate speech, and real violence are linked but unacknowledged
Another issue closely tied with political ads is hate speech and violence-inciting polarising content that aren’t necessarily paid ads. These are typical content in the form of posts, images or videos that are posted as a response to political ads or discourses. These act as carriers that amplify the political message, often in ways unintended by the campaigners themselves.
The echo chambers still exist. And the more one’s ecosystem or ‘look-alike audience’ responds to certain types of ads or posts, users are more likely to keep seeing them, thanks to Facebook’s algorithms. Seeing something that is endorsed by one’s friends often primes one to trust what is said without verifying the facts for themselves thus enabling fake news to go viral. The algorithm does the rest to ensure everyone who will engage with the content sees it. Newsy political ads will thrive in such a setup while getting away with saying ‘we made full disclosure in our report’.
All of this is great for Facebook’s platform as it not only gets great engagement from the content but also increased ad spendings from all political parties as they can’t afford to be missing from action on Facebook. A by-product of this ultra-polarised scenario though is more protectionism and less free, open and meaningful dialog and debate between candidates as well as supporters on the platform. That’s bad news for the democratic process.
4. Facebook’s election interference prevention model is not scalable
Their single-minded focus on eliminating US election interference on Facebook’s platforms through a multipronged approach to content moderation is worth appreciating. This also makes one optimistic about Facebook’s role in consciously attempting to do the right thing when it comes to respecting election processes in other nations as well. But the current approach of creating an ‘election war room’ is neither scalable nor sustainable.
What happens everytime a constituency in the US has some election or some part of the world does? What happens when multiple elections take place across the world simultaneously? Who does Facebook prioritize to provide election interference defense support and why? Also, I wouldn’t go too far to trust that they will uphold individual liberties in troubled nations with strong regimes or strong divisive political discourses. What happens when the ruling party is the one interfering with the elections? Who is Facebook answerable to?
5. Facebook’s headcount hasn’t kept up with its own growth ambitions
Zuckerberg proudly states in his post that they’ve deleted a billion fake accounts with machine learning and have double the number of people hired to work on safety and security.
“With advances in machine learning, we have now built systems that block millions of fake accounts every day. In total, we removed more than one billion fake accounts — the vast majority within minutes of being created and before they could do any harm — in the six months between October and March.
….it is still very difficult to identify the most sophisticated actors who build their networks manually one fake account at a time. This is why we’ve also hired a lot more people to work on safety and security — up from 10,000 last year to more than 20,000 people this year.”
‘People working on safety and security’ could have a wide range of job responsibilities from network security engineers to security guards hired at Facebook offices. What is missing conspicuously in the above picture is a breakdown of the number of people hired specifically to fact check, moderate content and resolve policy related disputes and review flagged content. With billions of users posting on Facebook, the job of content moderators and policy enforcers, even when assisted by algorithms, is massive. It is important that they are rightly incentivized to do their job well and are set clear and measurable goals. The post neither talks of how Facebook plans to reward moderators and neither does it talk about what the yardsticks for performance in this area would be.
Facebook fails to acknowledge that it is not fully prepared, partly because it is understaffed.
6. The new Product Policy Director, human rights role is a glorified Public Relations job
The weekend following Zuckerberg’s post, a new job opening appeared on Facebook’s careers page for the position of ‘Product policy director, human rights’. Below snippet is taken from that job posting.
Source: Facebook careers
The above is typically what a Public relations head does as well. Not only are the responsibilities cited above heavily communication and public perception building based, there’s not much given in terms of authority to this role to influence how other teams achieve their goals. Simply put, this role ‘works with, coordinates or advises teams’, it does not ‘guide or direct teams’. Als,o another key point to observe is that this role aims to add another layer of distance to further minimize exposure for Zuckerberg, Sandberg and other top key executives in public forums such as congressional hearings or press meets.
Any role/area that is important to a business typically finds a place at the C-suite table. Had this new role been one of the c-suite roles it would have been advertised so, and it may have had some teeth. Of the 24 key executives in Facebook, only one is concerned with privacy and policy, ‘Chief Privacy Officer & VP of U.S. Public Policy’. Even this role does not have a global directive or public welfare in mind. On the other hand, there are multiple product development, creative and business development roles on Facebook’s c-suite. There is even a separate watch product head, a messaging product head, and one just dedicated to China called ‘Head of Creative Shop – Greater China’.
This is why Facebook’s plan to protect elections will fail
I am afraid Facebook’s greatest strength is also it’s Achilles heel. The tech industry’s deified hacker culture is embodied perfectly by Facebook. Facebook’s ad revenue based flawed business model is the ingenious creation of that very hacker culture. Any attempts to correct everything else is futile without correcting the issues with the current model.
The ad revenue based model is why the Facebook app is designed the way it is: with ‘relevant’ news feeds, filter bubbles and look-alike audience segmentation. It is the reason why viral content gets rewarded irrespective of its authenticity or the impact it has on society. It is also the reason why Facebook has a ‘move fast and break things’ internal culture where growth at all costs is favored and idolized.
Facebook’s Q2 2018 Earnings summary highlights the above points succinctly.
Source: Facebook’s SEC Filing
The above snapshot means that even if we assume all 30k odd employees do some form of content moderation (the probability of which is zero), every employee is responsible for 50k users’ content daily. Let’s say every user only posts 1 post a day. If we assume Facebook’s news feed algorithms are super efficient and only find 2% of the user content questionable/fake (as speculated by Sandberg in her Senate hearing this month), that would still mean nearly 1k posts per person to review every day!
What can Facebook do to turn over a new leaf?
Unless Facebook attempts to sincerely address at least some of the below, I will continue to be skeptical of any number of beautifully written posts by Zuckerberg or patriotically orated speeches by Sandberg.
- A content moderation transparency report that shares not just the number of posts moderated, the number of people working to moderate content on Facebook but also the nature of content moderated, the moderators’ job satisfaction levels, their tenure, qualifications, career aspirations, their challenges, and how much Facebook is investing in people, processes and technology to make its platform safe and objective for everyone to engage with others.
- A general Ad transparency report that not only lists advertisers on Facebook but also their spendings and chosen ad filters for the public and academia to review or analyze any time.
- Taking responsibility for the real-world consequences of actions enabled by Facebook. Like the recent gender and age discrimination employment ads shown on Facebook.
- Really banning hate speech and fake viral content. Bring in a business/AI ethics head who is only next to Zuckerberg and equal to Sandberg’s COO role.
- Exploring and experimenting with other alternative revenue channels to tackle the current ad-driven business model problem.
- Resolving the UI problem so that users can gain back control over their data and make it easy to choose to not participate in Facebook’s data experiments. This would mean a potential loss in some ad revenue.
- The ‘grow hacker’ culture problem that is a byproduct of years of moving fast and breaking things. This would mean a significant change in behavior by everyone starting from the top and probably restructuring the way teams are organized and business is done. It would also mean a different definition and measurement of success which could lead to shareholder backlash. But Mark is uniquely placed to withstand these pressures given his clout over the board voting powers.
Like Augustus Caesar his role model, Zuckerberg has a chance to make history. But he might have to put the company through hard and sacrificing times in exchange for the proverbial 200 years of world peace. He’s got the best minds and limitless resources at his disposal to right what he and his platform wronged. But he would have to make enemies with the hands that feed him. Would he rise to the challenge? Like Augustus who is rumored to have killed his grandson, will Zuckerberg ever be prepared to kill his ad revenue generating brainchild?
In the meanwhile, we must not underestimate the power of good digital citizenry. We must continue to fight the good fight to move tech giants like Facebook in the right direction. Just as persistent trickling water droplets can erode mountains and create new pathways, so can our mindful actions as digital platform users prompt major tech reforms.
It could be as bold as deleting one’s Facebook account (I haven’t been on the platform for years now, and I don’t miss it at all). You could organize groups to create awareness on topics like digital privacy, fake news, filter bubbles, or deliberately choose to engage with those whose views differ from yours to understand their perspective on topics and thereby do your part in reversing algorithmically accentuated polarity. It could also be by selecting the right individuals to engage in informed dialog with tech conglomerates.
Not every action needs to be hard though. It could be as simple as customizing your default privacy settings or choosing to only spend a select amount of time on such platforms, or deciding to verify the authenticity and assessing the toxicity of a post you wish to like, share or forward to your network.
How far did Facebook go to become a mobile-first company?
Following are some of the things Facebook did to become the largest mobile advertising platform in the world, surpassing Google by a huge margin.
- Clear purpose and reason for the change: “For one, there are more mobile users. Second, they’re spending more time on it… third, we can have better advertising on mobile, make more money,” said Zuckerberg at TechCrunch Disrupt back in 2012 on why they were becoming mobile first. In other words, there was a lot of growth and revenue potential in investing in this space. This was a simple and clear ‘what’s in it for me’ incentive for everyone working to make the transition as well for stockholders and advertisers to place their trust in Zuckerberg’s endeavors.
- Setting company-wide accountability: “We realigned the company around, so everybody was responsible for mobile.”, said the then President of Business and Marketing Partnerships David Fischer to Fortune in 2013.
- Willing to sacrifice desktop for mobile: Facebook decided to make a bold gamble to lose its desktop users to grow its unproven mobile platform. Essentially it was willing to bet its only cash cow for a dark horse that was dependent on so many other factors to go right.
- Strict consequences for non-compliance: Back in the days of transitioning to a mobile-first company Zuckerberg famously said to all his product teams that when they went in for reviews: “Come in with mobile. If you come in and try to show me a desktop product, I’m going to kick you out. You have to come in and show me a mobile product.”
- Expanding resources and investing in reskilling: They grew their team of 20 mobile engineers to literally all engineers at Facebook undergoing training courses on iOS and Android development. “we’ve completely changed the way we do product development. We’ve trained all our engineers to do mobile first.”, said Facebook’s VP of corporate development, Vaughan Smith to TechCrunch by the end of 2012.
- Realigning product design philosophy: Designed custom features for the mobile-first interface instead of trying to adapt the features for the web to mobile. In other words, they began with mobile as their default user interface.
- Local and global user behavior sensitization: Some of their engineering teams even did field visits to developing nations like the Philippines to see first hand how mobile apps are being used there.
- Environmental considerations in app design: Facebook even had the foresight to consider scenarios where mobile users may not have quality internet signals or poor quality mobile battery related issues. They designed their apps keeping these future needs in mind.