“The question isn’t ‘What do we want to know about people?’, it’s ‘What do people want to tell about themselves?'” — Mark Zuckerberg
“Distraction serves evil more than any other mental state.” — Stefan Molyneux
I don’t think anybody was shocked to learn about the data scraping scandal and subsequent Congressional hearings. Mr. Zuckerberg’s behavior during the hearings confirmed many people’s opinion that he’s very similar to his character in The Social Network–an insecure, spiteful, and lonely genius. Our society is already facing a loneliness problem and Facebook only seems to make it worse: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201801/does-using-social-media-make-you-lonely.
Furthermore we cannot ignore Facebook’s literally murderous potential. Every Facebook user is complicit to a degree:
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook is not apolitical. You cannot use the platform and exonerate yourself from the fact that it was used and is used to foment mass murder in Myanmar:
Consider the following letter written directly to Mark Zuckerberg on behalf of various Myanmar human rights organizations:
5 April 2018 Yangon, Myanmar
We listened to your Vox interview with great interest and were glad to hear of your personal concern and engagement with the situation in Myanmar.
As representatives of Myanmar civil society organizations and the people who raised the Facebook Messenger threat to your team’s attention, we were surprised to hear you use this case to praise the effectiveness of your ‘systems’ in the context of Myanmar. From where we stand, this case exemplifies the very opposite of effective moderation: it reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency.
Far from being an isolated incident, this case further epitomizes the kind of issues that have been rife on Facebook in Myanmar for more than four years now and the inadequate response of the Facebook team. It is therefore instructive to examine this Facebook Messenger incident in more detail, particularly given your personal engagement with the case.
The messages (pictured and translated below) were clear examples of your tools being used to incite real harm. Far from being stopped, they spread in an unprecedented way, reaching country-wide and causing widespread fear and at least three violent incidents in the process. The fact that there was no bloodshed is testament to our community’s resilience and to the wonderful work of peacebuilding and interfaith organisations. This resilience, however, is eroding daily as our community continues to be exposed to virulent hate speech and vicious rumours, which Facebook is still not adequately addressing.
Over-reliance on third parties
In your interview, you refer to your detection ‘systems’. We believe your system, in this case, was us – and we were far from systematic. We identified the messages and escalated them to your team via email on Saturday the 9th September, Myanmar time. By then, the messages had already been circulating widely for three days.
The Messenger platform (at least in Myanmar) does not provide a reporting function, which would have enabled concerned individuals to flag the messages to you. Though these dangerous messages were deliberately pushed to large numbers of people – many people who received them say they did not personally know the sender – your team did not seem to have picked up on the pattern. For all of your data, it would seem that it was our personal connection with senior members of your team which led to the issue being dealt with.
Lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation
Though we are grateful to hear that the case was brought to your personal attention, Mark, it is hard for us to regard this escalation as successful. It took over four days from when the messages started circulating for the escalation to reach you, with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, being reached in the meantime.
This is not quick enough and highlights inherent flaws in your ability to respond to emergencies. Your reporting tools, for one, do not provide options for users to flag content as priority. As far as we know, there are no Burmese speaking Facebook staff to whom Myanmar monitors can directly raise such cases. We were lucky to have a confident english speaker who was connected enough to escalate the issue. This is not a viable or sustainable system, and is one which will inherently be subject to delays.
Reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions
These are not new problems. As well as regular contact and escalations to your team, we have held formal briefings on these challenges during Facebook visits to Myanmar. By and large though, our engagement has been limited to your policy team. We are facing major challenges which would warrant the involvement of your product, engineering and data teams. So far, these direct engagements have not taken place and our offers to input into the development of systemic solutions have gone unanswered.
Presumably your data team should be able to trace the original sources of flagged messages and posts and identify repeat offenders, using these insights to inform your moderation and sanctioning. Your engineering team should be able to detect duplicate posts and ensure that identified hate content gets comprehensively removed from your platform. We’ve not seen this materialise yet.
Lack of transparency
Seven months after the case mentioned, we have yet to hear from Facebook on the details of what happened and what measures your team has taken to better respond to such cases in the future. We are also yet to hear back on many of the issues we raised and suggestions we provided in a subsequent briefing in December.
The risk of Facebook content sparking open violence is arguably nowhere higher right now than in Myanmar. We appreciate that progress is an iterative process and that it will require more than this letter for Facebook to fix these issues.
If you are serious about making Facebook better, however, we urge you to invest more into moderation – particularly in countries, such as Myanmar, where Facebook has rapidly come to play a dominant role in how information is accessed and communicated; We urge you to be more intent and proactive in engaging local groups, such as ours, who are invested in finding solutions, and – perhaps most importantly – we urge you to be more transparent about your processes, progress and the performance of your interventions, so as to enable us to work more effectively together.
We hope this will be the start of a solution-driven conversation and remain committed to working with you and your team towards making Facebook a better and safer place for Myanmar (and other) users.
With our best regards,”
I was hopeful during the Arab Spring. The promise of a grass-roots digital uprising was inspiring. I don’t feel that way anymore. We’ve all been duped. Google and Twitter will also probably come under investigation. Hopefully these organizations will sincerely begin to live their principles, adopt a pay-per-use format, or agree to institute internal and external oversight. Or, as Google claims, “Don’t be evil.”
Considering Facebook’s irresponsible and complicit violation of individual data, why aren’t businesses running from Facebook? Should you run? Mozilla and Pep Boys have announced that they’re pulling their spending. But that’s about all I could find. Businesses in general are giving Facebook a pass. “We at Clorox stand by Facebook as an essential partner in building our brands,” said Eric Reynolds, CMO. AT&T, Proctor & Gamble, Verizon, PepsiCo have all decided to stick with Facebook.
Perhaps these companies differentiate the relationship an individual has with other users rather than individual users and brands. More likely is that these companies believe that demonizing Facebook is wrong because it could have been any platform, any user base. More likely, and hopefully, Congressional hearings will create real accountability–“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
It’s too early to see if the #DeleteFacebook movement will find traction. It feels lightweight–if 50 million users quit there’d still be another billion regular users from around the world, in places where social communication is important. There are too many people who don’t feel an affront to the Cambridge Analytica controversy. There are too many people who say, “Go ahead and take my data, I don’t have anything to hide.”
To its credit Facebook has already taken action. Last week it announced that it would remove ad targeting options that rely on consumer data from outside companies.” Given Facebook’s dominance, they probably don’t need outside data for ad targeting.
For businesses, Facebook will continue to be another means of extending their brands with connected consumers. Facebook branding helps a business create a holistic view and connection of their consumers. Well-told brand stories improve loyalty among target demographics. The Cambridge Analytica controversy will pass–it will not dent Facebook’s dominance.
Ultimately, business owners will have to come to terms with privacy and personal data issues on their own–reconciling the risk and reward and return. For me and many others it business owners it leaves the question: Is it better to work with the devil that you know than the devil that you don’t?