Alright, there have been one or two things happening in the world this week and if you’ve been all-consumed by Brexit, a tragic aeroplane crash, the tragic Christchurch shooting, or K-pop scandals, then you’d be forgiven for missing what the Facebook press office team has been up to.
What it hasn’t done is jumped on those Facebook rumour bandwagons and warned that ALL your privacy settings have been changed and that you’ll soon be bombarded with adverts to Vote Trump and the latest miracle weight-loss tea. No, the announcements that Facebook made – two in two days – were more far-reaching than that and left commentators wondering, “Why now?”
Let’s take them one at a time, on Wednesday 6 March Facebook announced its Privacy Focused Vision For Social Networking. Zuckerberg also wrote at length about it in a post on his Facebook page. As the owner of Instagram and WhatsApp, the move to make Facebook and naturally Messenger more private doesn’t seem like the most radical move, it’s more of a question of timing.
The answer comes from Zuckerberg himself who, back in the New Year, announced that he would host public discussions about the future of technology in society, including the implications that would have for his social media empire. It’s not as if Facebook is a benign entity, merrily chugging data through its electrical veins and presenting them in the form of posts and memes. The scandal around it becoming a political tool and its apparent slackness at eradicating misinformation for political purposes has hit the headlines multiple times. This together with the fear of personal data breaches is something Zuckerberg addresses directly in his post, admitting: “…frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protecting services…”
Although all this is about to change and in particular for Messenger, which looks likely to follow in terms of end-to-end encryption, its stablemate WhatsApp.
Why has this come about? If Zuckerberg is to be believed, then his desire to steer Facebook away from being used as a weapon to help governments cling to power by nefarious means is the central reason, driven by feedback from his public discussions. He’s like a Marvel character wrapping his protective shield around the social media platform, keeping the bad guys out and all the personal data, exchanges and messaging in.
He also makes an interesting point about Facebook having to take a stand on issues involving technology and responsibility, which is presumably why the following day this announcement was heralded: Combatting Vaccine Misinformation.
This fascinating move effectively bans all advertising that misleads people about vaccinations. More than that, it pledged to clamp down on anti-vaccine campaigners who spread misinformation by reducing their appearance in search results and removing the autofill suggestions for groups in the Facebook search bar. This move, predictably, did not go down well with anti-vaccine groups, with one describing Zuckerberg as a “sell-out” and accusing him of profiting from pro-vaccination lobbyists.
This clamping down prompted much debate on where Facebook would turn its attention to next. Would pro-breastfeeders get the axe or how about those opposing trans activism?
But by taking this bold step, Facebook has publicly aligned itself with groups such as the World Health Organisation and Government bodies specialising in disease control. It comes amidst statistics that reveal the largest Measles outbreak in Europe in the last 20 years, doubling in number between 2017 and 2018, something social commentators blame on the rise of anti-vaccine campaigners.
Pro-vaccines or not, aligning yourself with one side over another raises questions. Is it purely the socially responsible thing to do or should Facebook be an open platform for debate?
The issue comes when online propaganda meets real-world consequences. Facebook is not an open village square, it does not allow for unmonitored use. It has strict guidelines in place over its uses. Back in December last year it launched an investigation into so-called ‘co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour.’ This has little to do with actual content but rather who is posting and how. Investigators took down nine Facebook pages and removed six accounts after it was discovered that the pages, posing as authentic news outlets, were in fact controlled by employees of the Bangladesh Government and as such were posting pro-Government propaganda under the banner of real news.
With two significant announcements in two days, it was a big week for Facebook. On the one hand, you have the issue of privacy and a desire to create a messaging service that affords protection for all its users. On the other hand, you have Facebook effectively removing the whip from those groups who have treated Facebook as their own personal propaganda show. By not toeing the line any more, they’ve been punished by having their influence online curtailed.
Two different stories with central themes of privacy, data control and the fine line between acting out social responsibility and patrolling the pages of Facebook like an overzealous prefect. Either way, Zuckerberg has given us a fascinating glimpse into the future of Facebook over the coming months and years.