Facebook’s Good, Bad and Ugly Business Methods
Mark Zuckerberg's management approach to running his social media monster covers a wide swath of the corporate ethics spectrum
Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington to allay concerns that the online giant is not the enemy, following allegations that political consulting agency Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested user data from the social media company.
I had suggested to colleagues that Zuckerberg could have set a more mischievously upperhanded tone by appearing at the committee hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives with a list of members of Congress and the congressional campaign committees that ran their ads through Facebook. Alas, with members already well-plied with political contributions from Zuckerberg’s empire, he did not need to be that adversarial.
Still, a show is a show, and senators and representatives proceeded to poke, prod and harrumph a bit whether or not their reasons were sound. Robby Soave, writing at Reason.com, noted that Zuckerberg acquitted himself far better than some of the senators asking questions, and that threats of Facebook’s violating the privacy of users may be overblown.
Maybe. In the big picture, Facebook is a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good. Whatever one thinks about Facebook, let’s start here. Unlike your phone system provider, Facebook’s social media platform does not charge users. It makes its money with advertising.
This is a common practice in the digital world. In fact, the flowchart of the digital ecosystem, from marketer to publisher then to consumer, provides a Rube Goldberg-esque view of how digital not long ago supplanted direct mail as the number-two most used form of advertising.
When reading many of our favorite online publications, ads for some of our favorite companies appear — like magic. The business ecosystem behind that "magic" involves some of the largest businesses in America operating in a largely free market environment.
Businesses have been selling access to consumer "habits" as a way to target advertising long before Facebook's political advertising customers started peppering users with "vote for" or "vote against" messages.
Jody Westby, writing at Forbes, was unimpressed: "Facebook may become the textbook case of how one company's poor governance practices and greed can lead an entire industry — or country — toward regulation." Perhaps.
The bad. Speaking of regulation, with the "internet of things," the non-joke is that even our toasters can become spies for the government. It's not just that our technology now makes the most private aspects of our lives subject to business intrusion.
With threat of regulation, judge-less administrative subpoenas, and even warrantless spying, businesses are more likely to play ball with the government than to buck it, if only because the costs of contesting an adverse ruling likely far outweigh the near-term payoff.
If Zuckerberg is to be taken seriously that Facebook doesn't believe it censors conservatives, he needs an advisory board of real conservatives who understand the news business.
Of course, people can choose to live off the grid or even take steps to minimize these tech invasions. But that's no fun. We are destined to be a society not of numbers, but algorithms.
The ugly. If it weren't already painfully apparent that Facebook censors conservatives before the online videos of the immensely popular and charming duo Diamond and Silk were classified as "unsafe to the community," it is now.
Zuckerberg nevertheless told Congress in his Washington appearance last week that Facebook doesn't think what it's doing is censoring speech. He also told Congress of plans to use artificial intelligence to ban "hate speech." It is clear, however, that Zuckerberg and his company are incapable of being the benevolent philosopher kings over what passes for fair or even benign.
They continue to prove my point. Speaking recently at the prestigious Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, investigative journalist and good-humored sage Sharyl Attkisson noted that Facebook's plan to tackle fake news was to appoint "fact checkers" from a host of sources caught spreading — you guessed it — fake news.
If Zuckerberg is to be taken seriously that Facebook doesn't believe it censors conservatives, he needs an advisory board of real conservatives — not the token squishes who work at liberal media establishments — who understand the news business.
I'd start with Bott Radio Network CEO Rich Bott, Media Research Center's Brent Bozell, Fox News' Laura Ingraham, David Keene of The Washington Times, American Thinker Editor and former Harvard Business School faculty member Thomas Lifson, radio talk-show host Chris Plante, and public relations guru and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley.
Zuckerberg's obviously not a sympathetic character, but I don't envy the task he faces, which is being the scapegoat for new regulation of social media. He risks losing users, and eventually real competition will take him on.
More so, as a liberal, he is incapable of truly understanding what he will need to do to grow or even keep conservative users and advertiser dollars for that market.
Mark J. Fitzgibbons is president of corporate affairs at American Target Advertising and co-author with Richard Viguerie of "The Law That Governs Government."