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View from Washington: Zuck stuck in the muck

The Facebook's boss' response to the Cambridge Analytica controversy does neither his company nor technology any favours.

Were he a CEO in almost any other industry, Mark Zuckerberg would just now be grabbing a few hours kip before embarking on yet another round of punishing press interviews and bruising political encounters. Instead, his current absence from the airwaves and newspapers (a blog on his Facebook page will hardly cut it) is turning Zuck into a zero.

We’re talking, of course, about the building Cambridge Analytica (CA) controversy.

The nuts and bolts of the story have been covered in detail elsewhere – particularly by The Observer and Channel 4 in the UK, and The New York Times in the US – and it’s a bad one, not just for Facebook but for technology in general.

To recap, it appears that Facebook knew back in 2015 that an academic had seriously breached its terms of service on data sharing. It allowed him to launch an app harvesting personal information from its users and their friends for research purposes only, but he then shared the results with CA, a private analytics company, and Facebook found out. Some 50 million Facebook users are said to be involved and, it is claimed, the information was used to influence the result of the 2016 US Presidential Election.

The revelations cast a long shadow over Facebook’s initial assertions that its platform had not been misused politically and its later ones that while that may have been the case, it was on a comparatively small scale.

Yes, Facebook itself may not have been the ‘bad actor’ here. Yes, political quizzing it faced over political hacks concentrated not on CA but Russian troll farms. And yes, Zuckerberg has said that 2018 will be the year in which his “personal challenge” is to “fix” his platform.

But it does appear that the company suspected something was awry three years ago but then just didn’t really do that much about it.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

In the near future, how Facebook and its social media rivals have handled claims of their products’ abuse for political shenanigans look set to fill a Harvard Business School course on how not to do crisis management.

Even the specific CA story has been building for over a year, at least since journalist Carole Cadwalladr first linked the company with influencing the UK’s Brexit vote (indeed in tech circles, rumours connecting CA to highly confidential political research and profiling have been around for longer, though Cadwalladr deserves all the credit for her tenacity in getting them out into the open).

Given Facebook’s formidable internal PR and lobbying operation – albeit one that specialises in the most gnomic of external communication – it is therefore hard to believe that the company did not see this coming. It sent CA a formal instruction, for crying out loud.

Yet over the course of the weekend, the company blundered along much as it has before. Explanatory tweets were tweeted then deleted. The main whistleblower was kicked off its platform along with, more understandably, CA. Its plea was that it was more sinned against than sinning because an academic researcher lied to it.

The problem with all that remains that Facebook has been aggressively downplaying the prevalence of electoral chicanery on its site since politicians started their investigations in the US and UK. Then, it has provided evidence only grudgingly. There's a rather ugly pattern taking shape.

As The Observer reported the response of Conservative MP Damian Collins, chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee this weekend: “He said the company [Facebook] appeared to have previously sent executives who were able to avoid difficult questions and who ‘claimed not to know the answers.’”

And Collins arguably was showing the patience of a saint. US counterparts, such as Virginia Senator Mark Warner, have been saying the same thing for months.

It is easy to see Facebook as needing to be cut down to size, given such breathtaking and continuing arrogance. It certainly faces tough questions to which the answers must now come from either Zuckerberg or his COO Sheryl Sandberg. In public.

But there’s no schadenfreude to be had here. We cannot overlook the damage now being done to the digital economy overall. Our ‘friends’ are digging a hole not merely deep but also wide enough to trap us all.

Throughout this alarming saga, Facebook has not been alone in alternating between obfuscation and lawyering-up. Google and Twitter have done much the same. Watching their representatives face Parliamentary or Congressional committees has made the phrase ‘three wise monkeys’ feel more appropriate than ever. In the meantime, political and public confidence in the probity of these platforms and their senior management, as well as the software that sits on them and hardware on which they themselves reside, has continued to decline.

Zuckerberg’s “fix Facebook” comment did seem to belatedly acknowledge an oncoming storm, as, only earlier this month, did Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s admission that his company had failed to “fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of its platform.

But this weekend’s social SNAFUs in the media have pushed exactly the wrong kind of reset button. What kind of big data future do you think Joe Public will accept after all this? Where’s the trust? How do you get it back?

So, Mark, man up and prove to us that when you said “fix” you were trying to do more than fill out the word count on your blog. And while you’re at it, here’s a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a pair of wellies – personal challenges can be, well, Herculean.

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