The Facebook and FTC Face-Off: Implications for the Future of Social Media
By Chris Olson
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the UK-based consulting firm exploited Facebook’s social media business model to influence the 2016 US presidential election, raised the ire of several advocacy groups who want Facebook to pay. They’re calling for the FTC to hit the tech mogul with billions of dollars in fines, which according to Facebook’s quarterly earnings could amount to $5 billion. While the outcome has yet to be determined, the looming and less-talked about issues have more to do with non-financial remedies the FTC might impose in order to alter Facebook and all other tech giants’ practices and business models. Because what happens to Facebook will no doubt have broader implications for the larger digital data ecosystem that most marketers have become inextricably linked with.
An Investigation Worth Watching
Social media networks and other similar platforms have pretty big windows into their members’ private lives, and now that several large issues have come to light, it seems as though everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. While the bulk of Facebook’s members may be distracted by memes and viral pet videos, plenty of decision makers and other stakeholders are paying very close attention as this situation unfolds. The investigation is being monitored by policymakers, companies across the board, and cautious consumers. Perhaps so many people are watching because this isn’t just about the FTC’s attempts to put the brakes on Facebook. Rather, it’s a trope for social media’s growing role as digital town square. In recent years, the US government has been making attempts to establish rules after years of unregulated activities, and consumers have been struggling to regain their privacy rights.
The Stakes Are High
There’s just no putting it lightly; whatever the outcome from the investigation, it will directly impact the future of social media, from how it’s used to how those using it are treated. This isn’t just about Facebook; it represents a much larger set of problems and potential solutions. Those solutions, however, are clearly hard to come by because they don’t exist in outdated laws and regulations; and pointing the finger at such things is downright dismissive of the larger issue. Likewise, the answers won’t be found in social media platforms policing people’s impulses or limiting their free speech. Instead, the most effective solution can be found in bringing all parties together to craft better governance policies that can be applied as a baseline around the world.
The Digital Town Square
The internet was meant to be a digital environment that would bring people together. At least that’s how one of the founding fathers of all things digital, Tim Berners‐Lee, envisioned it. Social media, in particular was designed to be a digital town square of sorts within the larger digital world. People, governments, and companies would all benefit from the free (or, at least, low cost) exchange of ideas. Groups would function like the antiquated salons where intellectuals would meet, drink incredibly strong coffee, debate, and make the world a better place to live. While coffee may still be the preferred drink of choice, people aren’t always having inspiring or intellectually stimulating conversations on mainstream social media channels. Debates often degenerate into full-blown, if not vitriolic, attacks that have turned bullies into buzzwords for digital awareness campaigns. As a result, a growing number of consumers are choosing to take a digital Sabbath in order to escape the noise.
Now, to be totally fair, social media has accomplished plenty of amazing feats and it truly has brought plenty of people together in positive ways. Problem is, the positives are no longer at the forefront of consumers’ minds. The platforms have been hijacked for nefarious purposes like the deceptive collection of people’s personal information, which is often bought and sold without any knowledge or consent from the rightful stakeholder. Platforms have also become bombarded with fake news, hateful language and abuse toward individuals and groups–and, of course, a seemingly never-ending list of cybercriminals who commit identity, financial, and mindshare theft.
Fixing the Problem
When the glass really does start to look half-empty, something’s got to give. Berners‐Lee proposes that people, governments, and companies work together by committing to basic principles of governance. This means that governments will ensure everyone can connect to the internet so that everyone can actively participate online; keeping all of the internet available; and respecting people’s fundamental right to privacy so that all can use the internet freely, safely, and without fear. Companies and citizens also play a role in this plan–getting back to that whole idea of a global community working toward a common goal. Collaboration has never been more important than it is today, especially among companies along the digital supply chain. Today’s malicious campaigns are far too sophisticated for any one company to address single-handedly. The entire supply chain must work together on policing the digital ecosystem to thwart and keep out bad actors. Just as they do offline, everyone should carefully vet who they’re doing business with. In the digital world, however, there’s the added step of knowing who those parties are and what they’re doing within the digital ecosystem. More often than not, these parties operate within the shadows, undetected and unauthorized.
Data is now both a competitive advantage and a source of risk that every marketer, not to mention every business, must decide how to handle. No matter how great your organization’s security and privacy posture or risk management practices, in reality, it is only as strong as your weakest link—and that link is likely a supply chain partner with inadequate security practices in place or has rushed a product to market with little or no attention to how well data is kept private and secure. Once introduced to your digital environment, third parties’ activities become an organization’s responsibility. For social platforms, this means ensuring that users who exit the platforms through an outbound link land on known websites with a reputation for safety and security.
This is an issue almost all companies face, and far too many continue to ignore. Amid the growing number of data privacy laws, all companies must pay more attention to their supply chain’s data security and privacy practices—not doing so will come at a heavy price. In the near future, companies that protect consumer data will be those that earn consumers’ trust as well as their business.
Chris Olson is co-founder of The Media Trust