Zuckerberg’s Monster: Is Facebook Invincible?

by Heather Kroeker

Despite suffering one of their biggest scandals, Facebook is still the world’s most popular social network. If a data breach affecting over 87 million people worldwide can’t break them, what can?

“Even though it pains me to say this, I don’t think I will ever leave Facebook.”

Student Monika Čvorak has been a Facebook user since 2009. She wanted to delete it after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke in March, but was hesitant to leave because the platform allows her to stay connected with friends and family abroad.

“It has become so ingrained in my relationships with other people, and in my life in general, that I honestly don’t see that happening,” says Čvorak. “I felt like if I deleted it, I wouldn’t know what is going on in their lives anymore because I couldn’t see their posts or pictures. And I didn’t like the thought of that.”

As of March 2018, Facebook boasted a user base of 2.20 billion unique monthly users worldwide. Not even one of the biggest scandals in its history has been able to shut the social network down. 

Despite calls across social media to boycott the platform and #DeleteFacebook once and for all, only a fraction of users actually followed suit. Digital marketing platform Kepios reported that between March and April, only one million UK users left the platform. Despite this minor blow, in the UK Facebook still saw a two per cent increase of monthly active users in the first quarter.

Social interactions beat privacy

Although many users like Čvorak are worried about their privacy, deleting Facebook is easier said than done.

“Human need for social contact with others far outweighs our privacy concerns,” says Dr S. Shyam Sundar, founder of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State.

People are disappointed with Facebook for not doing more to guard their data, but many are unwilling to leave because they don’t want to give up their social network, and they don’t have other options.

“Each person’s social channel is ultimately owned by Facebook. It’s not like we can take our profile and shop for a new service provider,” says Sundar.

Despite the platform’s involvement in a steady stream of controversies since it was founded, Facebook’s ability to rebound is almost terrifying. Sundar believes that Facebook’s invulnerability largely comes down to its usefulness.

“Facebook is not simply a company that manages our network transactions. Instead, it is a technology that made our online networks possible in the first place and therefore inseparable from the company or brand,” says Sundar.

Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for Privacy and Data at the Centre for Democracy and Technology, says that part of the reason controversies like Cambridge Analytica have been unable to bring Facebook down is because users get so much out of the platform.

Is Facebook Invincible 2 - Heather
Caricature by donkeyhotey on Flickr (adapted by Esan Swan)

“Facebook is designed to make people engage,” says Jerome. “It has a tremendous amount of utility, and just because there’s perceived privacy violations or some other scandal, people aren’t exactly going to leave because there’s no other place to go and do that sort of stuff.”

In many ways, Facebook’s users have become its own bulletproof vest. While the design relies on having users engage and reveal personal information, users also voluntarily participate in this exchange.

“I don’t actually believe there’s really anything Facebook could do that would cause people to throw up their arms and abandon the platform. I think either something better comes along, or we start engaging in different ways,” says Jerome.

Dr Rajab Ghandour, lecturer in social media and digital marketing at University of West London, agrees that, at this point, it would take something far more significant than Cambridge Analytica to topple the social media network.

“If privacy and scandal couldn’t do that, I don’t think any other thing will push them to stop using Facebook. The only way we will see Facebook become obsolete is another application that can do what Facebook cannot do,” says Ghandour.

According to him, Facebook’s ability to survive despite the controversies is about more than its loyal user base.

“I don’t think that it would have survived without the whole corporation,” says Ghandour. “The way I see it is: the way they are acquiring apps, the way they are investing… I think they will survive.”

So what is Facebook’s Achilles heel? 

Sundar believes that the phasing out of Facebook is already happening.

“The worst thing that can happen to Facebook is that future generations will not use Facebook other than to occasionally keep up with older members of the family,” says Sundar.

Statistics already show that teens and pre-teens are using Facebook less compared to older generations. With younger social media users flocking to platforms like Instagram, Reddit and Snapchat, their absence from Facebook could be the key in making it obsolete. 

But even if users do change their habits and move to a different platform, Facebook has been cleverly investing in up-and-coming platforms and technologies, like virtual reality headset Oculus Rift or their newest venture, the Facebook dating app.

In addition, they have acquired other growing social networks like Whatsapp and Instagram. Therefore, even if Facebook’s invincibility wanes, there are options that allow Facebook to march steadily towards the future.

Can the new GDPR bring down Facebook?  Bhanvi Satija spoke to personal data lawyers in London about Facebook’s invincibility. 

The new General Data Protection Regulations, which came into force on 25 May 2018, specify that consent to sign up to social media organisations should be given explicitly and freely. As a result, Facebook and its other social networks Instagram and WhatsApp have bombarded users with notifications and emails about changes to their privacy policy.

“I think a privacy policy or a privacy notice is like a nutrition label. A label on a can of soup will tell you how much sodium the soup contains, Facebook’s privacy policy details what happens to our personal data on Facebook. Much like nutrition labels, very few people read privacy policies,” said Dennis Holmes,  Associate at Linklaters LLM, who specialises in data protection.

However, the only option users get with these notifications is to either ‘Agree’ or stop using their services. Personal data lawyers in the UK don’t think the new GDPR will change anything about how people interact with Facebook or what they think about the platform.

“I don’t think massive amounts of people are going to delete their Facebook accounts  or leave these social media platforms. But I do think what we might see more people requesting their Facebook records or appealing to these companies and flexing some of their personal data rights,” said Mr Holmes.

Praveeta Thayalan, a solicitor based in London, said: “I don’t think a lot of people care about their data. I personally don’t care about what Facebook holds on me. But the GDPR will ensure that if anything goes wrong, these companies can be held accountable.”

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