Another Facebook faux pas

Over the past year, Facebook has underlined in multiple ways the amoral nature of the social media and networking business, in which user data, privacy and business ethics are routinely subordinated to the bottom line and the stock price. More to the point, it has also highlighted the need to regulate it in some form or the other. The latest scandal to hit the Menlo Park, California-headquartered conglomerate, an exposé by The New York Times, has raised demands for the ouster of its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg following revelations that the world’s largest social networking site hired a public relations company to spread disinformation about its critics. This exercise involved, among other unedifying techniques, spreading anti-Semitic tropes against the Hungarian-American investor who was identified, falsely, as the force behind a broad anti-Facebook movement. 

The possibility of Mr Zuckerberg’s and Ms Sandberg’s exits may be cathartic for investors and activists. Given that Ms Sandberg appeared to be more concerned about being exposed to the Facebook board for her inadequate response to evidence of Russian trolls and bots on the social media site, and Mr Zuckerberg’s stonewalling, they would certainly be doing the right thing for once. But top-level resignations would not address the critical issue at the heart of the serial scandals that have erupted around the world’s largest and most powerful social media company. To be sure, these controversies, concerning the sanctity of user data and the subordination of their platforms to Russian trolls supporting Donald Trump’s election candidature, are not limited to Facebook and its associated social media properties WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus. Earlier this year, Facebook was among several IT giants, including Google and Twitter, whose senior executives were grilled by Congress on how they enabled Russian trolls to suborn their platforms and spread fake news to undermine the US presidential elections. But Facebook by virtue of its global reach and size — as of Q3 of 2018 it had 2.3 billion users worldwide — has been at the centre of these trends. In March this year, an exposé by The Observer that Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, had been provided access to the personal data of about 50 million Americans forced Mr Zuckerberg to issue yet another public apology.

The problem, though, is this: Facebook may have violated basic morality and ethics, but it has done nothing inherently illegal simply because the relevant laws do not exist. The prevailing business template is predicated on the assumption that users accessing free services knowingly forfeit the right to their data. On this basis many experts have suggested that social media cannot be governed. The US Congress’ collective cluelessness on the subject, revealed in multiple hearings this year, only highlighted the dangers of unfettered social media. The fact that the platforms span the globe adds to the complexities. True, the line between regulation and censorship is a fine one. But with the public discourse around the world growing dangerously polarised as a result of heightened social media exposure, governments need to move sooner rather than later to safeguard its citizens on the worldwide web.

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