Is Facebook looking at its Myspace moment? The blockbuster news that data scientists working on the Trump campaign rifled through the personal data of some 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge surely represents a new and disturbing low. But it’s been a long, long time since there was anything even remotely positive to say about the ZuckerBorg.
From creepy psychological experiments to advertising aimed at “Jew haters,” from the manipulation of its Trending Topics feed to the proliferation of Russian-backed fake news, Facebook is looking more and more like a uniquely malign influence in our lives. The question is whether Mark Zuckerberg and company, in their arrogance and greed, have dealt themselves a blow from which they will not recover. No doubt Facebook will be with us for many years to come — after all, Myspace is still with us, sort of. (I’ll bet you didn’t know that.) But Facebook’s reach and influence, already on the wane by some measures, may start to shrink in serious, measurable ways.
The latest, reported jointly by The New York Times and The Observer of London (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), is complex in its details but devastatingly simple in its conclusions. Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling operation backed by the wealthy Mercer family, used subterfuge “to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate,” as the Times put it. The data breach — not a theft but, rather, an abuse of Facebook’s rules — enabled an analysis of “whether a particular voter was, say, a neurotic introvert, a religious extrovert, a fair-minded liberal or a fan of the occult,” the Times reported.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” a whistleblower named Christopher Wylie told The Observer. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
The Cambridge Analytica side of the story is a rich one, and it includes details such as how the Mercers and their hired thug, Stephen Bannon, set up the company as a shell to hide its ties to the British-based SCL Group (it would be a crime for a foreign company to work on a U.S. political campaign) and how SCL, in turn, has ties to Ukrainian and Russian interests (but of course).
But as I’ve argued before, the idea that voters can be manipulated by the dark arts practiced by the likes of SCL and Cambridge Analytica is unproven. The false propaganda spewed daily by the likes of Sean Hannity and Breitbart (another Mercer-backed operation) is far more influential, I suspect, than Facebook ads specially tailored to “neurotic introverts.” What really worries me — and should worry you, too — is not what this says about President Trump’s 2016 campaign but what it says about the risks we take whenever we log onto Facebook.
Not that this should be news, but Facebook makes its money by engaging in the same kinds of psychological manipulation that the Mercers have tried to apply to politics. It uses that manipulation to keep you on the platform for hours at a time, all the while showing you ads based on how you use the service — what you post, what you “like,” what you comment on.
The Cambridge Analytica breach came about through a pretty typical Facebook activity. Several hundred thousand users were paid to take a personality test, and they agreed to share their Facebook usage patterns in return. Incredibly, at the time Facebook allowed researchers to scoop up the same data from the test-takers’ friends, unbeknownst to them, which is how the number grew to 50 million. Facebook’s response is that, well, you know, that’s not what the rules said you could do with the data. Sorry.
Now Facebook is in big trouble — not only in the United States, where, among other things, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has launched an investigation, but in Britain, where SCL is suspected of interfering in the Brexit vote, and where regulation of corporations such as Facebook is taken rather more seriously than it is in the colonies. Even here, though, The Washington Post reports that Facebook could be hit with “many millions of dollars in fines” for violating a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy. (Theoretically the fine could reach $2 trillion, although the Post cautions that’s unlikely to happen.)
Which brings me back to the Myspace analogy. As you may recall, Myspace was the big social network of the previous decade, succeeding a nearly forgotten service called Friendster. Myspace founder and “first friend” Tom Anderson’s smiling face became an iconic symbol of the early days of social media. The service became enough of a mass phenomenon that eventually Rupert Murdoch took notice and bought it. But Myspace’s dominance didn’t last long; in 2008 Facebook took the lead in total users. In the hazy mists of our collective memory, it might seem that Facebook was just better — more technologically sophisticated, easier to use. And that’s true. Myspace tended to look like a vintage 1990s-era Geocities web page.
But Myspace made some huge blunders, too. More than anything, it allowed itself to become a sleazy outpost that ended up driving users away. As Amy Lee of The Huffington Post put it in 2011, “The network had started to flood with scantily clad would-be celebrities, filling the site with highly sexualized photos that led to the site’s tarnished reputation as a hotbed of obscenity.” The result, Lee wrote, was something that internet researcher danah boyd compared to “white flight,” with Facebook emerging as “a safe haven for more elite users.”
Would anyone describe Facebook as a safe haven today? Of course, Facebook is far larger than Myspace ever was, and it benefits enormously from the network effect — that is, its main value is that everyone uses it. Nevertheless, some cracks in the foundation have emerged, and it’s possible that what seems impregnable today will turn out to be more fragile than anyone had imagined.
Consider: TechCrunch reported in January that growth in the number of Facebook’s daily active users had slowed during the fourth quarter of 2017, and had actually dropped slightly in the U.S. and Canada. The market research firm eMarketer has found that users who are 24 and younger are leaving Facebook in droves. And just this week, The Wall Street Journal cited new figures from eMarketer showing that Facebook’s share of digital ad revenues is expected to decline in 2018, from 19.9 percent to 19.6 percent — the first shrinkage ever.
Last month Wired magazine published a massive investigation by reporters Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein on Facebook’s two years of hell, starting with accusations that the service had manipulated Trending Topics to stifle conservative voices and culminating in Facebook’s role in propagating fake news. “It’s not easy to recognize that the machine you’ve built to bring people together is being used to tear them apart,” they wrote, noting that Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to the notion that fake news on Facebook may have influenced the election — “a pretty crazy idea” — was seen even within the company as “clueless and self-absorbed.”
So what happens next? Last October, The New York Times published a roundup of ideas for “How to Fix Facebook.” ranging from reducing anonymity to transforming the company into a nonprofit organization. My own suggestion would be for a startup to launch a competing social network without advertising. Users would pay a modest fee — say, $10 a month. And all of the perverse incentives to keep us online and sell us stuff would go away.
I should add that this is not likely to happen. But no one thought Myspace’s time in the limelight would be so short-lived, either. In the digital age new, compelling ideas can catch on very quickly. Just ask Tom.
WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is the author of "The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century."