The Blog

  • May 2, 2018
  • Facebook’s vulnerabilities

    Adam Smith famously referred to “the invisible hand” of the free market in his landmark book “The Wealth of Nations” and with that made himself one of the very first political economists. Smith’s observation was so on point that today most of us assume markets run through the agency of individuals pursuing their enlightened self-interests. A lot of this drove the evolution of CRM as a tool for tracking customers.

    If you pay attention today you can notice a not-so-invisible hand functioning in multiple areas. For instance, if you’ve been following the aftermath of the school shooting in Florida, you know that an activated group of kids and adults nationwide has begun a movement to get something done about gun safety. The #MeToo movement in which women are banding together to change the workplace by eliminating sexual harassment is another, and so is the Black Lives Matter movement. But you can argue that all of them are free market responses in that they arose from the grass roots without much prompting from elite power centers.

    What each has in common is the initiative by engaged individuals to cause change in what are essentially marketplaces in the broadest conception of that term. Much closer to home, even in the technology world we’re seeing the stirrings of user dissatisfaction with social media and it’s not clear where this will go. Its impact on CRM could be big because social has become one of the key channels linking vendors and customers.

    A recent article in Wired, “Facebook Doesn’t Know How Many People Followed Russians on Instagram” by Issie Lapowsky, documents Facebook’s foot dragging on producing information for the various inquiries surrounding the 2016 American election. Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has been looking at the details and producing information that’s uncomfortable to Facebook. He’s been quoted in Wired, The New York Times and elsewhere.

    Albright’s work has uncovered many things concerning Facebook’s approach to the investigation which you might call passive aggressive. For instance, when asked why it had not produced information about how many people had seen Instagram information produced by Russian operated troll accounts, a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said, “We have not been asked to provide that information.” So little curiosity…

    It’s not necessary to repeat the article here; it’s worth reading but that’s your call. It documents how Facebook has so far assisted investigators but only if they ask the right questions. The final paragraph summarizes this point,

    Facebook has shown consistent reticence in detailing how these trolls infiltrated its platform and who that propaganda reached. They’ve repeatedly had to correct prior statements about the reach of these ads and accounts. By working with outside researchers like Albright, the company might be able to paint a more complete picture, but Facebook has been unwilling to open its data up to researchers.

    It’s not necessary to re-examine every time Facebook denied their involvement or disputed findings that upwards of 150 million people saw content from the Russians or that all the US intelligence services agree that the Russians did indeed hack the election. That’s all very interesting from another journalistic angle but not this one.

    The totality of Facebook’s unwitting involvement in the hack plus its efforts to downplay their importance brings up a bigger issue for Facebook, and by extension all social media: How useful are Facebook and social media generally considering the Russian hacks?

    A glib answer might be that it doesn’t have to be terribly useful because it’s free and users get whatever utility they can from using it. But that misses the point. If Facebook’s utility is small or especially if it’s disputable, its business model would be in serious trouble.

    Social media’s primary product has always been the user. It is valuable to each of us when we use it to gather information about our personal grafs and we knowingly pay an in-kind fee by letting social sites collect data about us, which they can then sell to advertisers. It’s a classic network effect—the greater the audience the more valuable the output of its data.

    But what happens if the veracity of information on social media is in doubt? Social media’s value is directly proportional to its veracity and if one can doubt that veracity it might be prudent to seek alternatives. People and corporations that invest heavily in using social media’s information might begin doubting if their investments deliver value.

    My thoughts

    So far Facebook’s approach to the hacking scandal has been to deny and ignore it only admitting something when there’s no other choice. This presents another problem associated with stonewalling—dissipating trust. However unpleasant the facts, the more a party tries to ignore or hide them the lower the market’s trust in that entity and the greater the opening for a disruptor.

    The truth value of what people put up on the networks and what they believe about the truthfulness of others’ posts makes social media’s world go around. That truth is what makes some people spend hours a day surfing the sites and it’s what makes advertisers purchase ads. Once that trust begins to erode, even a little, the business model can begin to unravel.

    Whoever is advising Facebook on its strategy should reconsider. It’s human nature to not enjoy dealing with criticism and serious accusations. But impinging the free flow of information won’t solve the problem. Free markets depend on transparency and Facebook is a free market of ideas. If it stops being that, or even if people stop believing it, there’s no reason for them to continue using it.

    Published: 3 weeks ago


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