There was a time when we thought Zuckerberg and Facebook were special. A special company, run by special people. Those days are far behind us. With its relentless focus on its profits, Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth has time and again proved itself to be as sleazy as any other sleazy corporation.
The decline of Zuckerberg
Take the events of recent years as examples of this:
- selling users’ personal data to third parties;
- hosting Russian propaganda intended to disrupt US elections;
- allowing the spread of conspiracy theories, extremist material and hate speech; and
- amplifying calls for ethnic slaughter in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Thanks to The New York Times, we know that in 2016, under pressure over claims that it was enabling democracy to be subverted, Zuckerberg first tried to mask its failings. After that when that failed, and its stock price continued to fall, it went on the attack. For example, it hired Definers, a PR firm that specialises in the dark arts of political research.
I suppose that the funny thing is, the truth about Facebook was plain to see in 2010, on the big screen. When The Social Network came out, I rooted for the awkward geek taking on the establishment. However since then, my sympathies have shifted. To watch the film now reminds us that for all his lofty talk about connecting the world, Zuckerberg never set out to be a force for good.
Zuckerberg has a precursor to Facebook: Facemash. Above all, this was a mean-spirited site that asked students to rate their peers by their looks. And he cared not one jot about privacy. He got the photos for Facemash by hacking Harvard no-show in London directory websites. Today, Facebook has two billion users-and global domination in its sights. How can we check the power of this unpleasant company?
One possibility is examining its business model which depends almost entirely on advertising. In exchange for allowing consumers to use the social network for free, it mines information to sell to brands. And it gets by far the better end of the deal. Its confusing terms of service obscure the true nature of the agreement.
Zuckerberg does provide tools that let members control who they share their data with. However, deploying them is not an easy task. Even Zuckerberg accepts that the average person rarely understands the terms of service. He has said he’d be open to the right regulation, and in previous hearings senators were content to leave the matter there. But so long as the $450bn company’s ad-driven business conflicts with users’ privacy interests, we cannot trust it to police itself. US lawmakers have zeroed in on the correct Facebook target. Whether they pull the trigger is another matter.
Take the Cambridge Analytica data-selling scandal. A paltry fine of £500,000 got dished out. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg continues to defy requests from seven national governments that he address, in person, their concerns about his firm. It’s the arrogance that is so galling: he believes Facebook is above the rules that govern the rest of us. Since conventional power is failing to constrain it, we must exert financial leverage. We should boycott Facebook – and the companies that advertise on it.
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