Facebook’s Fall from Grace

Following the attack at a mosque in Christchurch in which 50 people were murdered, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called on Facebook to do better;

“They are the publisher, not just the postman. It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

She has a point, during the shooting in Christchurch the shooter live streamed his rampage through two mosques. I have seen a couple of screen grabs from the video and the images look like a very graphic shooter game. We now know that the first man to see him at the first mosque greeted him with the words “Welcome, Brother” and presumably this greeting was recorded on the live stream. It’s now illegal to publish the video stream in New Zealand, and the article where I saw these images has been taken down. To give Facebook credit once the New Zealand police alerted them I understand their Global Escalations Teams worked to remove instances of the live stream from their platform. But technically, under US law, they cannot be held responsible in court.

The video may still be out there, I’m not interested in seeing it but when researching for this article I found an interesting autocomplete in a google search, and it seems the effort to remove the video was not perfect.

In the Easter shootings across Sri Lanka which had a significantly higher death toll, their government worked quickly to block social media, and continue to circumscribe citizens’ use of social media. It’s not the first time the Sri Lankan government have blocked social media due to concerns about the spread of extremism via social media sadly.

How is this possible?

Social media platforms have benefited from a piece of US law, section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act which says;

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”

It’s an important part of maintaining free speech on the internet and it means I’m not liable for comments someone leaves on this blog, and nor is WordPress. The EFF explains in more detail.

More scandal

This isn’t the only issue Facebook has been faced with, last year they admitted to a security breach that may have affected 90 million accounts.

There are also growing concerns about health impacts as research piles up about the harmful impact of social media, particularly on children. There’s also evidence that anti-vaccination activists are targeting ads to people likely to be wavering on the vaccination question, and the number of Measles outbreaks keeps growing.

More famously their algorithms have undermined democracy in at least two countries. This is via the link to Cambridge Analytica, here’s how that worked as explained by journalist Carole Cadwalladr;

With all this scandal, how is the company doing?

Well. Facebook is doing well.

Revenue continues to grow, user numbers continue to grow. User numbers have apparently levelled off slightly in the US and in Europe, but it’s not clear that this is due to scandals.

Facebook currently makes more than 1.6 million USD per employee, 98% of their revenue is from advertising (2018 annual figures).  Which begs the question of just who the customer is. Remember that they don’t pay for any of the content placed on Facebook – in contrast to, say, a glossy magazine like Vogue which at least provides some content to dilute the advertisements. So we, the users are the content providers and our attention is the commodity sold to advertisers.

Regulation Required

It seems this isn’t a problem that the free market can solve. We’re now living with a platform that is with us 24/7, pulls together a global community of almost half the world’s population, and holds data on our every move – and tends to seek more data rather than less. One way that Facebook has grown is by acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp, and the company is now so rich that it can buy any competitor thus stifling innovation. Governments have seen the impact on their country – in Sri Lanka, in New Zealand with devastating effects – and in their elections. During the campaigning to appeal the 8th amendment in Ireland Facebook banned all ads that were funded from outside Ireland, showing that it is possible to contain the damage of foreign influence. The EU put the GDPR legislation in place, in an attempt to protect citizens against the power that Facebook and other social media companies have accrued, in response Facebook moved millions of accounts from Irish servers to US servers – out of the reach of EU legislation.

The US is also stepping up, with the FTC investigating Facebook’s use of personal data and a hefty 5 billion USD fine looming over the company. Even that might not be enough, there’s a bipartisan call for tougher protections on consumer privacy.

I started writing this post in December, it’s been re-written more than any other post I’ve ever made, but every time I thought I was ready to hit publish something else happened. I nearly delayed again to analyse the information coming out of F8 and more analysis on the appearance of a change in Facebook’s policy on privacy, there’s a pretty good analysis on the Vergecast – they’re not convinced and nor am I.

Image via pixabay

Missing Communication

When a friend of mine didn’t answer question on Whatsapp last week, I went cyberstalking. I checked his facebook and found he was in the UK. Not really an excuse, it’s just next door and it’s almost the same timezone, his phone should work there.

Turns out, he has a brand new shiny phone, with a new phone number. I found this out because he emailed me.

I started thinking about all the tools I use to connect, and how I choose which tool to use. It’s a question that comes up in companies as communication tools proliferate, I can remember conversations with internal comms colleagues wanting to make a guideline to help people along the lines of “if you have this type of content – use this tool”.

It turns out that for me, it’s less about the content and more about the people, particularly when it comes to short messages.

Email

I have multiple email addresses, to add to the fun. I use email to communicate with my mother, she’s on a very different timezone so if I need to send her a message email works well. I know she’ll go to her desk at least once in the day and she’ll pick up my message (while I’m asleep).

In my social circle almost no-one emails me, unless they have a specific document to send me, or perhaps photos to share that they don’t want on facebook.

sms

One group of friends has never evolved past using SMS; few of them are on facebook, so that’s not an option, and one doesn’t have a phone smart enough to use Whatsapp. It’s fine, until you want to have a many-to-many conversation.

Lots of friends use this as the fastest way to get someone’s attention for a short message.

whatsapp

Currently my favourite tool, used by certain groups of former colleagues. It lets you have one-to-one or many-to-many conversations. It’s phone agnostic. Plus the emoticons are prettier. I tried using it with other groups, but mostly people default back to what they’re used to.

facebook

I limit my facebook to family and friends, so “only” have 111 facebook friends. I use the chat function within facebook a lot, it seems to be the tool most friends are most comfortable with, it works pretty well in the phone app (despite the endless invites to upgrade to another level of service). I have a group of friends from all over the world that I got to know online, we started out as anonymous handles in a chat room, but as we’ve grown to know and trust each other real names have been shared, and this group are the most comfortable using facebook – it’s a lot like having them in the room.

twitter

Rarely used for messaging, unless twitter is the only way someone knows me. Often use the “@” function to share something the person will find useful or (more often) funny. Pretty much no-one uses DMs.

linkedin

Former colleagues, classmates, conference delegates, business contacts – either through a message or an in-mail, the connections there are more of a work nature, and so is the contact.

These tools are all available to all of the people (except whatsapp – blocked for one person). Who uses what has evolved, and there are certainly people I would contact on more than one platform. I don’t keep a list, I don’t use any special decision tree. The icons for all these tools are on the home screen of my phone so it’s easy. In the olden days I used to know people’s phone numbers, this knowledge has replaced that.

I think the same thing is happening in the workplace, each platform added to the workplace is adding another communication or messaging tool, and for some the choice feels overwhelming – particularly as the number of external tools is also growing. As people get more used to the tools, and understand how groups and communities form, it will feel very natural. Rather than take a prescriptive approach, trying to guide employees to a “right” way to use the tools, companies should take an open platform approach, simplifying access and enabling employees to find all the tools they need in one place.

Finding the right tool to communicate should be as easy as accessing it from my phone’s home screen.

Image; smartphone via pixabay