Facebook is, in many ways, the archetypal social media site. It’s the most popular for sure, with over two billion users by 2017, a boom from its 5 million userbase in 2005 reflecting the explosion into prominence of social media sites as a whole. The platform’s versatility makes it ideal for multiple levels of communication, including a private messaging system, the ability for users to choose who gets to see their “public” posts on their personal profiles,
While Facebook’s core feature of “friends” – allowing two users to mutually follow each other’s feeds – is a key way users relate to each other, it is also important to note that Facebook allows users to “follow” accounts, a one-way observing relationship as opposed to the mutual relationship of “friends”. With public figure pages, groups that can be open to anyone or so secret that they will not show up on member’s profiles, Facebook allows its users to chose the level of public interaction they want to engage in, a versatility of usage that accounts for its popularity, allowing Facebook to function not only as a public forum of interaction (like Twitter), but also as an intimate venue for contacting existing friends.
This diversity of use leads to a diversity of userbase, with a majority of Americans in every demographic (except for those 65 years and older) using the platform. And this diversity of userbase in turn makes Facebook a very appealing target for advertisers of all things.
Facebook began in 2004 as a social network specifically for allowing Harvard student to connect with each other, while founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was still at Harvard himself, only 19 years old.
The site steadily expanded to other educational institutions before opening to the public in September 2006, all the while promising to keep the website completely free to use – a promise they have kept to this day. This has proved to be a wise choice, and not just because free-to-use has become the default model for social media around the world, but also because it allowed Facebook to focus on making money through other avenues.
With almost all of Facebook’s $12 billion quarterly revenue coming from advertising, it’s plain to see that their decision to include advertising on the site from the outset was a lucrative one. Even from the very beginning, the banner ads that Facebook featured on its users profiles were targeted based on user info – the same information about the users’ age, gender, university, political views and hobbies that they listed to create their (then, largely text-based) profile.
Facebook’s history with aggregating user data in order to maximise their advertising revenue hasn’t all been smooth sailing and sky-high profits, however. Facebook Inc. made headlines in 2017 when it was revealed that data sourced from their users was sold on to Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate SCL Elections Ltd. in order to tailor ads for both the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The data used was not only voluntarily supplied by those using the app thisisyourdigitallife (who then sold it to Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections), but also by mining the data of the Facebook friends of the participants. This data-gathering process was done perfectly legally, with Facebook including this ability for its affiliate apps, though these affiliates are prohibited, under Facebook’s terms of service, from using it for any other purpose than improving their app.
Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections, being third parties, should not have gained access to the data gained by thisisyourdigitallife had Facebook enforced its policies beyond simply sending one single request for the data to be deleted, two years after it became aware of it being sold. But the fact of the matter remains that this data went on to shape the victory of a presidential campaign that spent over half of its budget on internet marketing.
Facebook’s role in the 2016 US presidential election goes beyond the Cambridge Analytica scandal, however. With everything from the “fake news” designed to spread as fast as possible with provocative headlines and blatantly incorrect information, to the use of “bots” across multiple social media platforms, social media is coming to have the same kind of power in presidential campaigns as traditional medias once had – but without any established conventions, frameworks of understanding, or, in many cases, even regulatory laws.
The unmediated nature of social media is one that has raised concerns: media watchdogs are a presence in many countries around the world, with consumer-oriented functions varying from making public the profits and ownership links between media companies and other parties, to providing fact-checking tools. Governmental media regulation bodies have the power to punish media corporations attempting to create a monopoly of the press (by prohibiting their proposed acquisitions), and those which publish materials that go against the watchdog’s guidelines.
The issue that arises is that these regulatory bodies long predate the internet, and many of their rules do not account for the powers of social media, or contain loopholes which digital media may be able to get through just by virtue of how they function. So too do many groups have no legislation in place for the unique challenges presented by social media. Facebook made headlines when the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office fined it £500,000 over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it’s important to note that this is specifically a data watchdog, which was formed in 1984 and didn’t have the power to fine offenders until 2010.
The gap between the jurisdictions of data and media regulatory bodies narrows daily as companies like Facebook continue to make profits by having information as both product and user-fee. Facebook, Inc. has yet to face any punitive action for their role in the hosting and spreading of fake news in the 2016 presidential election – the changes they have made to their policies regarding fact checking being entirely self-imposed (albeit in order to restore public opinion of the company), and while they do now outsource potentially misleading posts to third party fact checkers like Snopes, they only fact check posts which have been specifically reported by the userbase, leaving plenty of room for posts to slip between the cracks.
The power of Facebook in politics stretches beyond just the USA and is not just limited to those willing to fork out millions in order to flood it with their content, however. Facebook has been used as a tool of social change the world over, using the “events” and “groups” functions to organise protests, to create, spread and comment on political media, and as a way to preserve anonymity for those who may face retribution for their opinions. These uses of Facebook have allowed for caucusing of political allies across geographical, national, and class boundaries like no other technology before, contributing to such major political movements as the Arab Spring revolutions. However, the function of anonymity is one that warrants deeper examination.
Facebook, Inc. includes a policy of “real-ID”, mandating that all users of the website do so under a name that not only do people use to refer to them in “everyday life”, but also appears on their legal ID. This is a reflection of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s personal philosophy of “radical transparency”: he believes that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”. Any Facebook accounts that are found to be made in a name other than a verifiable legal name face being suspended or deactivated permanently.
This “legal names (and derivatives) only” approach may have made sense back when Facebook was still Thefacebook and existed mainly so that people could stay in touch with the people they met at their university, but it raises several issues in Facebook’s new role as a world-wide networking platform.
Facebook’s role in the Arab Spring was significant, forming a space for open discussion regarding the extant regimes and then for the organisation of the popular movements that toppled them, in such a way that shielded participants from the potential physical violence at the hands of the state had they met in person. At least, this was believed to be the case until Facebook suspended one of the most popular Egyptian pages which focused on police brutality: “We Are All Khaled Said” (a tribute to the murdered internet activist of the same name). The page was shut down due to none of its administrators listing their legal name on Facebook, an understandable precaution, as the death of the page’s namesake after planning to leak incriminating images of the police online proves. The page was eventually restored, but only after one of the admins was willing to let Facebook know her legal identity – reflecting on the incident, she said the “techies” running Facebook “don’t understand” the realities of her and others fighting for freedom in Egypt, but also that “there are no other alternatives”.
Facebook’s unrivalled market-share of nearly one third of the Earth’s population means that it really is the only option for activists trying to reach as many people as they can. Whether the company likes it or not, the site’s connectivity has developed it into the largest political arena in human history, and the company cannot have its cake and eat it too by sitting back and enjoying praise for being a facilitator of democracy while also endangering those who seek to create that democracy.
Facebook, Inc. has moved out of the shadow of Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room to become the largest social media platform in existence, allowing communications on all levels from intimate to public address from heads of state. If Facebook wants to continue to enjoy profits that make the most punitive fine possible from the ICO seem like a slap on the wrist, then they will have to realise that their platform has grown beyond the scope of their Silicon Valley business models and their Ivy League education.
Facebook’s ubiquity means that it will not only shine the light on political movements of the future, but it is the stage on which they will be set. Indeed, ruling parties world-wide have already been influenced by actions taken on the site, and if Facebook, Inc. won’t step up to shape its policies to reflect the enormous diversity of its userbase, we will only see more fake news, more propaganda bots and more murdered freedom-fighters in the years to come.
 Hughes, D. J.; Rowe, M.; Batey, M.; and Lee, A. (2011) “A tale of two sites: Twitter vs. Facebook and the personality predictors of social media usage”, in Computers in Human Behaviour 28, pp. 561
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