Facebook finds itself, yet again, in midst of a “data” crisis, and Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook, is trying very hard to defend himself and his company from tough questions and the possibility of increased regulations. It’s a difficult time for Facebook, as it is already under scrutiny for the case of Russians who were allegedly able to use the platform to spread propaganda in 2016 and especially influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Responding to accusations of data malpractice at the hearing, Zuckerberg conceded that:
“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.”
How did it all start?
It all started with Cambridge Analytica (CA). This data analytics company used personal data available on Facebook to run digital political campaigns. Claims against CA also suggest that the company was involved in running digital campaigns in favor of Donald Trump’s presidential run of 2016 on the basis of personal user data from Facebook illegally acquired by CA.
The data used from Facebook was not simply demographics; it also included behavioral data, such as users’ likes, comments, and the pages and causes users’ supported. Essentially, this data was used by the company to draw out which user was a “neurotic introvert, a religious extrovert, a fair-minded liberal, or a fan of the occult.”
Facebook got involved when Professor Kogan signed a data-sharing deal with SCL Elections (CA’s parent company) and handed over all the data from his This Is Your Digital Life quiz app to the company. This app had data acquired from personality tests taken by users and only U.S. voters with Facebook accounts were able to take the test. The data from the tests have further collaborated with the information on users’ social media profiles. Through the app, information of about 87 million Facebook users was leaked to the company. The company then used this information to target the users with personalized political propaganda in favor of their clients.
Facebook denied a data breach, especially with regard to Professor Kogan’s app, as all the information was knowingly given by the users of the app. As such, the system wasn’t hacked nor was any sensitive information, such as passwords, revealed. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has decided to investigate Facebook as per the national inquiry into the use of private data analytics and Mark Zuckerberg was called to face a panel of senators and lawmakers.
Mark Zuckerberg upheld Facebook as an “idealistic and optimistic company,” and on occasion “skillfully” answered questions without really committing to any specific laws or regulations that would severely change Facebook’s business model. At the same time, he also accepted his and Facebook’s responsibility toward building tools used for good. Furthermore, he has confirmed that Facebook doesn’t sell personal data to advertisers and Mark Zuckerberg’s cool demeanor is also responsible for the rise in the value of Facebook’s shares after its initial drop. Overall, Mark Zuckerberg followed a steady pattern of accepting Facebook’s mistakes, apologizing for them, and committing to work hard to resolve the problem. If any specific questions were thrown at him, he deftly deferred to: “Our team should follow up with you.”
Especially with regard to CA, Mark Zuckerberg stated that they believed CA had deleted the Facebook data on their systems and considered it to be a done deal. He accepted their mistake and committed to deal with such a situation differently the next time. He went ahead to outline the steps taken by Facebook to restrict misuse of data, especially by third parties.
Senator Ted Cruz grilled Mark Zuckerberg for the political censorship of information shared on Facebook. Zuckerberg claimed Facebook was based in the Silicon Valley, which is a left-leaning place, after being repeatedly asked by Senator Cruz whether the social media company considered itself a neutral public forum or a First Amendment speaker expressing their political views.
Mark Zuckerberg initially countered that the goal of Facebook was not to engage in political speech and that he was not aware of the legal laws referred by Senator Cruz, to which the senator explained in detail how a large number of Americans were deeply concerned that Facebook, along with other tech companies, were engaged in a pervasive pattern of political bias and censorship.
The senator cited numerous instances where Facebook routinely suppressed conservative stories from Trending News such as CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), Mitt Romney, Lois Lerner’s IRS Scandal, blocked posts of a Fox News reporter, and the Diamond & Silk’s page with over a million followers.
Mark Zuckerberg replied that the company’s founding principle ensured Facebook is a platform for all ideas. But actions of the media company suggest otherwise and he has not recognized, accepted, or made a clear commitment to root out the inherent bias.
What’s in store for the future?
Europe is also seeking to put Mark Zuckerberg on a similar hearing stand. The EU is already preparing to enforce a law based on data and its misuse that would heavily charge social media and tech companies in cases of any violations. As such, their stance on the matter with regard to Facebook is comparatively tougher than that of the U.S., and Mark Zuckerberg may find it rather difficult to be as evasive before the European panel.