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Facebook once looked invincible – it was the world’s most popular social network and user growth seemed like it was going to remain on a permanent upward hockey stick curve. Everywhere you looked, it seemed like Facebook was stealing a march on its competitors. And when it couldn’t out-compete its rivals, it would simply swallow them up whole. At one point, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was everywhere, being held up as a poster child for Silicon Valley innovation.
The strange decline of Facebook
And then something strange happened – the inevitable waves of protest against Facebook became an unstoppable tsunami. These days, Facebook is blamed for just about everything that’s wrong with the Internet. Fake news? Blame Facebook. Election meddling by the Russians? Blame Facebook? The growth of the corporate surveillance state? Blame Facebook. The election of Donald Trump? Blame Facebook.
There is literally no end to this because if there is one thing that the Internet is good at, it’s piling on. Things are so bad for Facebook right now that fellow Silicon Valley exec Elon Musk is openly trolling his rival Mark Zuckerberg on social media. If you watched any of the CNN TV interview with Zuckerberg, you were probably concerned that he might start crying at any moment. You could almost hear him thinking: How did I go from Harvard whiz kid to universally loathed public figure?
Facebook’s sad record with data privacy
In short, Facebook lost the trust of its users by failing to take any measures to protect their data. At some level, every Facebook user knew that they were being used by the social network – that all of their details, preferences, and behaviors were somehow being tracked and used to serve up ads. But it’s only in the past six months that users have figured out how bad things really are.
The case that everyone is talking about now is Cambridge Analytica – not only did this company get its hands on data from 50 million Facebook users using spurious methods (a stupid quiz app), it did so by tapping into the data of your friends. And Zuckerberg himself can’t rule out that thousands of other apps also played fast and loose with your data. In fact, nobody really knows how much data has been used – and then re-sold to the highest bidder.
What can be done to regain trust on Facebook?
Even people who aren’t following the online debate about user privacy are feeling a bit outraged these days. Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to take back at least a modicum of your online privacy, like do a brief audit of all the apps that have access to your data, and making sure that you update all of your privacy settings so that only true “friends” can see your updates, not anyone who has ever sent you a friend request in the past.
But is it enough? Those steps seem like a case of too little, too late. Zuckerberg has said he’s “sorry” and has pledged to do a full investigation and audit, but most users really don’t believe him. The movement #DeleteFacebook continues to gain momentum, and it’s easy to see why the mainstream media is helping to fan the flames of this firestorm of a PR crisis — there’s always a delicious moment of Schadenfreude that comes when a big corporate giant falls face first to the mat. (C’mon, admit it, it feels good these days to have a laugh at Zuckerberg’s expense.)
Perhaps the only thing saving Facebook right now is that there is not an obvious alternative of where to go if you want to escape its intrusive surveillance of your data. Surely, Twitter would love to win you back, but don’t they do the same thing? And how many people are really willing to use the “nuclear option” and destroy their Facebook account forever? That is the big question that probably keeps Facebook executives awake every night.