Facebook is at a crossroads and Four Corners awoke the reality

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 13 April 2017
Rosie Baker AdNews editor

The Four Corners Facebook episode this week might be familiar territory for everyone in the media and marketing industry, but for the normals out there, the real people, who don't live and breathe advertising, retargeting and data, it offered a genuinely terrifying version of what Facebook is and does.

Investigative journalist Peter Greste covered off all the major flash points; Facebook’s ability to collect great swathes of personal information, to analyse behaviours, interpret what users are thinking and predict their next move. It can know where you are, who you're with, what you like and dislike. It can target you with messages based on your actions and it can connect other organisations with you based on all of that. It can serve you ‘news’ and information that influences your world view. Its intrusion into people's lives is ubiquitous and it's hard to see a way that it will be dialled back, but there were some stark warnings from experts on the ABC show that may have many viewers asking questions that they weren't asking before.

“We only have one identity and we can't take back what is already handed over,” said one security expert.

“We know there is a danger but we don't know the extent of it and the potential implications of it,” said another.

A lot of that stuff is scary if you didn't realise that Facebook had that kind of power and capability - and let's not be naive - many don’t.

One quarter of the world's population is on Facebook, and Facebook (along with Google) is chasing “the last one billion” - people who are yet to access the internet. The idea being that if Facebook or Google can provide internet services to those who don't already have connected access, those people will do everything online within the Facebook framework. It locks them into the walled garden for everything.

Zuckerberg was described in the episode as a king, a monarch, a dictator - Facebook’s population is bigger than any single country and its powers are similar to that of a government, it explained. Earlier this year there were news reports circulating suggesting Zuckerberg is gearing up to run for office and it’s not a massive stretch. (Let’s consider that the current President of the United States is a reality TV star with dubious history in business.)

Zuckerberg is described as behaving more like a statesman than a CEO, but one expert on the program explained that if Facebook continues to be this successful, he doesn't need to run for office. Facebook is already more powerful than a government. That should have alarm bells ringing - loudly.

While much of what the show outlined was familiar to me, and likely to you, for many it was confronting territory.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is at a crossroads. And there is now a massive dilemma for users, advertisers and publishers.

Facebook (and Instagram and Whatsapp) is firmly woven into the fabric of day to day life for users, publishers are reliant on the audiences it delivers (although not the dollars) and advertisers are addicted to the data and ability to target (although the return is debatable).

Currently, advertisers are pissed off and confused thanks to issues around reporting and metrics, publishers are seeing little revenue despite the large audiences, and the public are getting more pissed off and confused by what they are handing over to Facebook and what they get in return.

If Facebook can't keep those sets of significant stakeholders happy it has a major issue on its hands.

But is it the beginning of the end for Facebook? Unlikely, but it is the beginning of a less naively accepting public willing to hand over everything to Facebook in return for nothing, and publishers less willing to farm out their content for nothing in return.

However it should be noted that there is a small element of irony throughout the show. ABC live streamed the show on Facebook, and there was great deal of debate about it on the platform. ABC also ended the show with the disclosure that it too uses Facebook pixels for its own tracking activity, which summed up nicely the catch 22 situation everyone is in.

Greste also outlined his own personal dilemma with Facebook. When he was imprisoned in Egypt on ‘trumped up terrorism charges’ Facebook played a key role in his family’s efforts to get him released.

During the Arab Spring Facebook became a “revolutionary tool” seen by many as key to the overthrow of a tyrannous regime.

On the flipside, more dangerous examples are the extremist organisations and terrorists groups that use Facebook as a platform to rally support and drive their agenda.

But there have always been underground movements, and they a have always relied on the latest tools to gain momentum. In this respect, Facebook is no different in principle to when the printing press was invented.

Facebook’s power to influence is undoubtedly massive. With more than 16 million Australian users Facebook’s penetration is bigger than many other media outlets combined, but it is just the latest in a long line of innovations and developments that have changed the way communities communicate and interact.

When German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press in 1450 it kickstarted revolutions the world over.

It enabled the spread of ideas at a pace never seen before, and frankly, it scared the shit out of the establishment. The Pope is said to have threatened anyone who printed information that wasn't approved by the Catholic church with excommunication.

Rebel groups could convene and communicate in a way they had never been able to do before and it as seen by some factions as a direct cause of civic unrest.

One avenue of Facebook’s power that over the past 12 months has become more overtly concerning is its ability to influence political agendas. The Trump campaign and Brexit are both examples where political outcomes were shaped by the spread of information on Facebook, based on what it knows about users, targeting and behavioural analysis, as well as the rush of misinformation and fake news that was blindly accepted alongside real news.

Read this interview with Cambridge Analytica The politics of data-driven marketing: Q&A with Trump's data man

“It helps politicians lie better” said one security expert on the program while another said it was concerning how Facebook is “hijacked by forces that are not transparent to us” said another, referencing the way that most people are unaware of how their information is used.

Four Corners interviewed a former journalist at Facebook who was replaced by the news algorithm, who pointed out that “AI hasn’t got to the point where it can function like a human brain”, which is why so much misinformation is spread on the platform.

Immediately after Facebook replaced its human news team (which had been accused of bias) with an algorithm, fake news exploded.

“I don't trust the general public's ability to identity fake news,” the former journalist said, adding that Facebook is in denial that it’s a media company but should take more responsibility as one.

Read this peice on the public's indifference for the truth

The rub for publishers is that although, as many will say their total audiences are larger than ever with more people exposed to and engaging with their content, it doesn't translate into dollars for them to fund more content. The dollars are siphoned off to Facebook, which makes on average US$16 per user. 

That is $16 Facebook is making thanks to every user providing it with personal information and a constant stream of data that can be turned into insights and feedback to advertisers for a profit.

As publishers grapple with less advertising money, more journalists roles are axed and their ability to create premium, reliable content is reduced which begins the downward spiral of pervasive fake and poor quality content flooding the internet.

For the greater good
In February this year, Zuckerberg published his manifesto for Facebook as a force of good, with positive aspirations to make the world a better place as a way to counter the growing skepticism.

It goes way beyond it being a digital technology platform. The CEO outlines its aspirations to drive civic engagement, keep communities safe, fight terrorism, help identify people who are at risk of harming themselves or others, but one commentator on Four Corners described the “attempt to take responsibility” as the suggestion that the “solution to Facebook’s problems, is more Facebook”.

While it would be foolish to forecast that Facebook’s power will decline any time soon,
Four Corners may have awoken the beginning of an awareness in people that what they plug into FAcebook on a daily basis has far greater implications than they think and that can only be a good thing.

“Lives are measured in data, in handing it to Facebook we’re making Facebook one of the most powerful companies in history, the question is at what cost to ourselves?” summed up Greste.

And clearly, more people will be asking that question.

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