Over the past week, Mark Zuckerberg has sat in front of two Senate committees in Washington to answer questions on how Facebook has operated over the past 14 years. Amid concerns of Russian interference, data harvesting, and more, the founder of the company received questions with often scripted responses that artfully dodged senators’ attacks.
However, the hearings have revealed larger concerns besides Congress’s apparent lack of understanding of how to use social media and Zuckerberg’s delegating skills (often stating that his ‘team’ would ‘follow up’ on questions).
The most apparent theme to come from Wednesday’s round of questioning is that of Facebook’s political biases. Senator Ted Cruz led the charge with a flurry of questions around why Republican and right-wing political pages had been blocked for vague reasons. The main example he brought forward was a Trump supporters’ page being removed due to it being ‘unsafe to the community’.
Cruz cited the banning of these pages to the political biases of Facebook’s staff, later asking if Zuckerberg was aware of the political orientation of all of his staff that work on content moderation out of the company’s headquarters in the historically “blue” Silicon Valley area. Though Zuckerberg was quick to denounce this line of attack, stating that he has always aimed to ensure a worker’s political beliefs do not interfere with their work, this has opened up discussion around the effect of Facebook’s internal biases on external politics.
However, the biases that Cruz claims to go against the Right could also harm the Left in a different manner. Nicholas Thompson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired, explained in a post on Linkedin that Silicon Valley knows it is more liberal than the rest of America. Due to this (and Facebook’s desire to “connect the world”) the social media giant often over-compensates and focuses too much attention on the Right. Examples of this were brought up by Rep. John Sarbanes of ‘dedicated campaign embeds’ for both of the previous presidential campaigns. He gave examples of an estimated 5.9 million ads approved for the Trump campaign in comparison to only 66,000 ads for the Clinton campaign, however whether this was due to overcompensation or Russian interference is yet to be determined. What is clear is the extent of Facebook’s undeniable potential influence on US and global politics.
Another concern was around how Facebook collects and holds users’ data. A recurring question was simply ‘what data does Facebook collect?’, to which Zuckerberg listed vague examples. We now know that Facebook does not use information from voice calls thanks to Senator Dean Heller’s direct questioning, though the amount of data collected is still frightening (see WSJ’s breakdown of how much personal data is collected when someone organises a night in with some pizza).
Despite valiant efforts from the Senate committees, Zuckerberg was not able to give a clear and concise picture of specifically what data is recorded, how this data is gathered (especially when users are offline), and what data is removed once a user deletes their account.
On a broader scale, Zuckerberg was also asked to what extent Facebook could be considered a monopoly. Senator Lindsey Graham simply asked ‘what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?’, to which Zuckerberg responded by listing other social media services (failing to mention how many of them Facebook owns). However, questions over Facebook’s lack of competition generally pointed to a wider concern: does Facebook have too much power?
In short: yes, it does, we (as users) all know this, and we’ve known it for years. However, we appear to be ok with this for the most part. It is seen as a trade-off for the ease and convenience of being connected to almost everyone all the time. Although, sure, we may have the occasional pang of fear that someone in a dimly-lit control centre might be tracking our every move, but this fear inevitably moves back to the place of the brain where thoughts of clearing out our email inbox and finishing that book you started a year ago reside. People often seem to express concern over the actions of Facebook yet rarely does anyone disappear from our friends list. We seem to accept that Facebook is too powerful but do nothing about it.
However, with both scandals around Cambridge Analytica and Russia surfacing, data protection is now at the forefront of discussion. Social media users need to understand how their data is used and how to ensure their information is protected. The rights we need to campaign for have now moved from the civil into the digital age, however the passion for campaigning has not. Young people are disinterested with how their data is managed because they either simply aren’t aware of how their data is used or instead feel that so much data is being stored that there is nothing they can do.
The discussion around privacy rights and social media companies’ role in our lives needs to change to reflect the new era of data. Users now need to understand how their privacy is being affected and that they are able to enact change through putting pressure on these companies. This change needs to come from those who interact with social media the most: namely students, millennials, and naughties children alike. This is especially true as AI and data harvesting begins to move from social media into other environments, such as the workplace (as recently highlighted by the Economist).
It’s time we need to take control of our data and the influence of social media on our lives. If discussion does not change sooner rather than later then Cambridge Analytica will only be the beginning in a series of more worrying manipulations of social media.