Have you heard of Facebook?
Of course you have.
The social media company netted over 40 billion dollars in 2017. It has over 2 billion users worldwide using its services for the mission of connecting people to “bring the world closer together.” And when Facebook co founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg first launched his site, he was a 19-year-old student in a dorm room.
So what happens when the tech savvy millennial sets out to bring the world closer together?
Well, a testimony in front of the United States Congress.
The opening statements had Senator John Thune asking what Facebook planned to do to take greater responsibility for what happens on the social network. This is because recently a researcher named Alexsandr Kogan created a personality quiz, put it on Facebook, and gave the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica the personal information collected from tens of millions of people.
That is a breach of Facebook’s policies, by the way.
And while this is true… “The fact that those 87 million people may have technically consented to making their data available doesn’t make those people feel any better,” says Senator Thune.
Everybody wants to blame Zuckerberg, and he has admitted to not taking a broad enough view of the company’s responsibility. But Zuckerberg is not the only one who needs to think about accountability here. We’re all doing this. We all willingly trade our personal data for free services. Data is being collected on us at Google, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, and not to mention the countless products and services we sign up for everyday in exchange for some of our personal information. The question is whether or not any of us really understand the scope of what we give up in the digital age, and just how valuable that information may be.
And those topics are just the tip of the iceberg in what the Facebook Hearings revealed.
Although the misuse of personal information is what made the headlines, Zuckerberg found himself explaining to congress the tools he’s developed in the way of AI, detecting Russian bots, fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech, and data privacy. He told Senator Feinstein about his company’s removal of tens of thousands of fake accounts during the French and German elections that were spreading misinformation. He’s disclosed taking down 470 fake accounts that were part of a broader Russian network attached to the American election. He’s reminded Congress about people in Russia whose job it is to try to exploit our internet systems. According to Zuckerberg, it’s an arms race, it’s something they’re going to keep on getting better at, and it’s something that we need to get better at too.
When we think about Facebook, we don’t normally think about the United States Senate. When we think about a 19-year-old kid developing software in his dorm room, we don’t really think about how willingly giving up personal information on the Internet can wind up in the hands of third parties trying to make money off of influencing the democratic process. But here we are. On the one hand, we’ve got millions and millions of people willingly posting personal information online, with tens of thousands of third parties creating apps and quizzes and all sorts of tools to try to obtain as much of that information as possible, for an unlimited number of possible purposes. On the other hand, we have a Senate committee grilling a billionaire millennial on how to stop this from happening.
What a time to be alive.
And it’s a tall order for Zuckerberg. He developed software to connect the world, and in doing so he finds himself rich, powerful, and in charge of a company who has access to more personal information than the United States government. And they know it, too. What he’s facing now highlights some of the unanswered questions we face as a society in the digital world: how much of our privacy should we be willing to give up in exchange for what services? Who should we trust with our information? How much does the average person really understand about how our information is used online? I’ll give you a hint on the last question: not much.
Love him or hate him, this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Mr. Zuckerberg. His platform isn’t the first and won’t be the last one people have tried to exploit to access your personal information. Not even the Senate knows what to do with him, but one thing is for sure. They need him. Zuckerberg is at the forefront of a brave new digital world and he’s not going anywhere. Neither is Facebook.