In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook might actually be in trouble. The #DeleteFacebook hashtag is trending, and it’s seen some unlikely contributors, like Blink 182 singer Mark Hoppus, and Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp, which was itself sold to Facebook. Meanwhile, Facebook stock has dropped by 10% this week so far. The FTC has announced that it’s opening an investigation into Facebook’s business practices, to determine whether Facebook violated its user agreement, an infraction which would come with a hefty fine. Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t made a public statement about the matter yet, but he’s been summoned by the UK Parliament. The bad news keeps piling up.
The obvious question is whether Facebook will survive, after whatever punitive measures are dispensed. And, while it’s possible that it won’t, it’s difficult to imagine how its extinction would come about. Its users could always leave, but there’s very little individual incentive to do that, and, given that a third of the world uses Facebook, getting everybody to quit would represent a massive coordination problem. Therefore, unless Facebook is banned outright, or somehow sued into oblivion, it seems likely that it will persist, if in some sort of regulated or otherwise curtailed form.
The less obvious question is: why now? This is by no means the only data scandal that Facebook has been embroiled in. Any intelligent consumer of digital media knows very well that Facebook is harnessing their personal data, and that such data has been treated carelessly before, and used for somewhat nefarious ends. Probably the most striking example came in 2014, when PNAS published a study by researchers who quite literally played with the emotions of Facebook users to find experimental evidence of Internet-based emotional contagion. More recently, earlier in March, it was revealed that Facebook’s researchers had told advertisers that it had figured out how to identify whether its teenage users were feeling desperate or depressed—and that this could be worthwhile marketing data. Given all of this, it’s clear that data security isn’t the primary force driving #DeleteFacebook.
It’s much more plausible that what’s behind the media conflagration isn’t data security itself, but rather the involvement of Donald Trump. Some have claimed that Cambridge Analytica was responsible for Trump’s election, having provided his campaign with personal data about voters that (maybe) offered unprecedented psychologiccal leverage, revealing which precise people could be viably targeted by propaganda. If you’re anti-Trump, and you believe this, then your beloved social network has unwittingly engaged in a large-scale erosion of democracy, which is to say, a technologically-driven coup by a candidate you don’t like.
This may not even be the case, by the way. The person who’s most loudly proclaimed that Cambridge Analytica was responsible for the election’s outcome is the now-suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix. Ted Cruz’s campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, obviously didn’t win the election, and, as David A. Graham of the Atlantic reports, “found that CA’s products didn’t work very well, and complained that it was paying for a service that the company hadn’t yet built.” Corroborating this view is Kenneth Vogel, a New York Times reporter from their Washington Bureau, who recently Tweeted that Cambridge Analytica “…was (&is) an overpriced service that delivered little value to the TRUMP campaign.” He went on to claim that campaigns only signed up to secure access to the Mercer family—a rich line of big-time Republican donors—being that they’re major CA investors.
To sum up: Cambridge Analytica is only one of many organizations which have used personal Facebook data in a sinister manner, and its use of that data might have actually been inconsequential. If this is the case, #DeleteFacebook offers a clear lesson to tech companies, which is that it’s not actually important whether your product or service unscrupulously surveils its users. It’s more important to ensure that your company doesn’t give its data to anybody particularly unpopular, especially if they end up getting elected. If you sell your data to relatively unproblematic clients, you’ll probably be okay.