The Senate Talks to Zuck

(or: “I will get back to you on that, Senator.”)

Here is an early response to Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate today. If you want my overall score, as of 3:30 ET I think Zuckerberg is doing quite well, but some of the things being discussed need a lot of unpacking.

Those Poor Fools “whose privacy settings allowed it.”

In the beginning of his testimony, Zuck described what people are so upset about:

Zuckerberg: [The Kogan personality quiz app that shared data with Cambridge Analytica] was installed by around 300,000 people who agreed to share some of their Facebook information as well as some information from their friends whose privacy settings allowed it.

[Emphasis mine.]

Huh — this phrasing is so careful to be technically accurate but it is right up against the limit of truth. Then I think it goes past that. I looked up what the Facebook privacy settings screen looked like in 2015. It looked like this:

facebook privacy settings as of 2015 screenshot

If we follow the research findings in the security area, most users probably never saw this screen at all: people tend not to know about their own security settings.

But if you did find this screen, anyone who clicked “Friends” for any column surely could not have taken this to mean that their “privacy settings allowed” (Zuckerberg’s phrase) the harvesting of their data by an app that they never authorized and were not aware of.

This is presumably why Facebook disallowed this use of third-party data by apps well before this scandal. There is no third-party consent. So Zuckerberg’s claim that the Kogan/Cambridge Analytica app took information from people “whose privacy settings allowed it” seems a bridge too far.

The American Dream

A closing thought:  It is hyperbole, I know, but I was struck by Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) remark that “Facebook represents the American dream.” Didn’t The Social Network cover this ground? I don’t remember the plot that way. Did Thune just mean that Zuck got rich?

Zuck’s the Scorpion and We Are The Frog?

Zuckerberg: [investments] in security…will significantly impact our profitability going forward. But I want to be clear about what our priority is: protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.

This is a nice quote by Zuck because it highlights the key problem with Facebook’s position. The issue isn’t really “security” though. It’s the fact that Facebook is fundamentally in the business of harvesting user data and that negative, polarizing (and even inaccurate) ads and status updates are good for the platform. They promote engagement through outrage.

To crib from Marshall McLuhan, what is in the public interest is not necessarily what the public is interested in. Gory road accidents turn heads. But is that what our media should be showing?

Zuck’s comment is also highlighting that by asking Facebook to fix these problems, we are asking advertising-supported media to behave in a way that makes no sense for them and is opposite to their nature.

Let’s take a look at some of the ads placed by fake accounts controlled by Агентство интернет-исследований  they are extremely polarizing (american.veterans is a beard or sock puppet account):

 

1509564403589-screen-shot-2017-11-01-at-30922-pm

And it is now very clear from both common sense and the Trump/Clinton Facebook CPM fracas that polarizing ads on Facebook are much more likely to gain clicks.

The Trump campaign’s official ads were quintessentially negative and polarizing ads: they did things like try to associate the phrase “Crooked Hillary” with a winged bag of money.

Political ad spending is also a windfall that old media (radio and television stations) depended on, but there was no “click engagement” dimension with old mediaold media left people with little to do. It seems possible that the new media political ad environment can create feedbacks with negative ads that might be much more significant than the old ways of doing things.

Pay-For-Privacy

Another thing that struck me in early Q&A is the concern raised about a paid Facebook model. This was floated yesterday in a media interview and now Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is asking Zuckerberg if it is true users would have to, as he put it, “pay for privacy.”

Nelson seems outraged. On the one hand, this outrage makes no sense. If Facebook were switched completely away from an advertising model, it would be great for users as it would redefine the company’s incentives completely.

However, I think what is being proposed is a half-pay, half-free system (or opt-in payments). If that’s the plan, the outrage is justified. Pay-for-privacy makes social media even more regressive.

Privacy is already regressive in the sense that only those people who have time to learn about risks and fiddle with endless (and endlessly changing) settings pages have any hope of protecting themselves. The current system rewards computer skill and free time. And even with those things users still may not be able to protect themselves, because the options just aren’t available.

But an opt-in payment system makes privacy even worse by taking these intangible regressive dimensions and, in addition, putting a payment step on top of them. It’s not that people in opt-in privacy use either time or money to obtain privacy, rather it will be the case that people who both have time to follow this topic closely enough to know that they need privacy in the first place and can afford to pay for it will have privacy.

 

Big Social Won’t Be Fixed

I need to sign off because I can’t spend the day watching this. My summary so far: “Big Social” won’t be fixed by anything that was said here. The business models, institutions, and habits are too well-established and have too much inertia for a meaningful reconfiguration to come from the things I’ve heard so far.

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