22 November 2018

The big questions that hang over Facebook’s future


These are turbulent times in Silicon Valley. Tech giants such as Google and Amazon are facing staff protests over the way they’ve handled issues like sexual harassment. In the stock market, those same firms are taking a bit of a beating. On Tuesday, Apple shares took yet another dive — prices are 20 per cent down on their year high. Other so-called FAANG stocks — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google parent firm Alphabet, are also under pressure.

However, it is Facebook that is particularly feeling the heat. Its rivals may have tricky issues to try and tackle, but none appear to be facing an existential crisis in quite the same way the world’s biggest social network is.

An explosive report in the New York Times exposed not only how badly Facebook has handled privacy concerns and Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential election, but also the vicious way it goes after its perceived rivals and critics. It has even used a controversial PR firm called Definers to place stories attacking competing firms.

Indeed, at the launch of a new report from LSE’s Truth, Trust & Technology Commission on Tuesday night, former HuffPost UK Editor Polly Curtis noted wryly that Facebook has not only allowed misinformation to spread on its platform, but “it’s creating it”.

The company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, for so long both a feminist icon and a source of investor confidence thanks to her role as Mark Zuckerberg’s babysitter, is under sustained fire over the revelations. CNBC’s Jim Cramer suggested that the firm’s “stock goes up” if Sandberg were to quit. No surprise then that rumours abound that she may yet leave. (She surely would have headed into politics anyway if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016.) There is even discussion that Zuckerberg himself should go, or at least give up his chairman role.

But it is not just at the top where Facebook is facing staffing issues. Working there was once considered the hottest ticket in town, but is no longer seen as so desirable by high-flying young engineers. A follow-up piece in the New York Times said that computer science graduates are not banging down Facebook’s door anymore as they do not see the company as aligned with their values. Recruiters too are noticing less enthusiasm from young, idealistic graduates. Free food apparently just isn’t enough.

All-in-all, it feels like we’ve arrived at a rather crucial juncture in the Facebook story. Sir Nick Clegg certainly has his work cut out as Facebook’s new Head of Global Policy. Can the world’s pre-eminent social network reestablish itself and regain trust with users?

Zuckerberg is certainly trying to do so. He has published a series of soul-searching notes about his company’s recent travails. In one that discussed elections, he conceded that the firm “didn’t expect were foreign actors launching coordinated information operations with networks of fake accounts spreading division and misinformation.” In another, he insisted that Facebook has made progress in cleaning up its community and explained how it is using Artifical Intelligence to develop ways to filter out “harmful content”.

However, Facebook’s attempts to make political advertising on its platform more transparent have already run into problems. A number of sites have reported being able to falsely pose as various figures, including US Vice President Mike Pence, and pass its new verification system.

But how many normal users really read long notes from Zuckerberg or take in changes to political advertising regulations anyway? Almost none.

Facebook’s only hope of real revival then is root-and-branch reform. If Zuckerberg and/or Sandberg were to go, it would hardly be the first occasion in which founding or key figures quit a tech giant that they have created. Scandal forced Travis Kalinick out of Uber. Twitter’s founders have also stepped away at different points. Such a move does seem more unlikely at Facebook though, given the power that Zuckerberg and Sandberg wield.

If there is not going to be a change of individuals then there must be a change of outlook. Facebook has to become more open about how it uses our data. It must explain this in a way that is accessible to normal users and is not hidden away in the T&Cs. Just allowing us to download the data we have already given away is simply not good enough.

The time is also coming that the company will have to fully accept that it is a publisher and a news platform. It is certainly welcome that the company giant has said it will fund some local news reporting in the UK, but it needs to more readily appreciate the pressures and responsibilities that come with its own privileged position as a newswire to billions of users. (Again, this is something Zuckerberg touched on in a note, but we need to see how any changes work in reality.)

2019 is clearly going to be something of a defining year for Facebook. According to a famous story in Facebook folklore, in 2009 the notoriously hoodied Zuckerberg wore a tie to work every day to indicate how serious a year it was for the firm. A decade later it might just be time to put that tie on again.

Charlotte Henry is a writer and commentator, and author of the forthcoming book 'Not Buying It'.