Facebook: How Did It All Go Wrong?

Facebook generates huge profits and causes big problems for governments in many countries. But can it be fixed?

Undermining customers

Facebook has grown at an incredible speed to become one of the most influential companies in the world. But it is under intense pressure to explain its actions. Its promise to protect people’s personal data was undermined during the 2016 Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections. During the period information, misinformation and lies swirled around the network with little control or concern over what was and wasn’t true.  

The company’s digital age success story is founded on old-fashioned advertising, as it captures the attention of customers and keeps them engaged. One criticism of the company is that it provides users with what they want in a way that polarises opinion, stokes fear and stirs anger between different groups. The company’s algorithms are designed to entice users by offering the material they want, regardless of the quality of the source. Driving activity on a social media platform may not seem too dangerous an occupation but the company is also under intense scrutiny for its effect on the mental health of young people.

The currency of the company is people’s private data, which it collects from everywhere and not only directly from customers. Difficulties arise when such data is marketed as part of the operation of the business, not least because it distorts figures. The aim of the company to connect everyone is used to find better ways of collecting and selling information to advertisers. Customers seldom question how their information is managed as they use the platform to talk to and share updates with friends and family. But there is a growing sense of unease amongst politicians and the public about how the company treats the information it holds.

Undermining democracy

The democratic process depends on the free and open reporting of facts and a commitment to the letter and spirit of the law. It also depends on a strong, trustworthy and sustainable press. And when a small number of companies soak up the vast majority of advertising spend it leaves little room for journalists to report the truth. In this context, Facebook’s use of data is indiscriminate as it presents true, partially true and untrue information with the same ease. News from the company is what users choose it to be as they are provided with information that confirms their view of the world regardless of its validity. The company’s reach stretches around the world but its success masks the damage done to the privacy of individuals and the fair running of democratic elections. Unscrupulous organisations and countries also exploit the company for their own gain, which weakens its vision of protecting customers and acting as a force for good.

So, Facebook has grown to become a major global influence but it must take responsibility for its actions as they affect millions of people around the world.