Facebook Frownies

Three things Facebook must do if it wants to win back people’s trust

A scholar of digital trust evaluates the social networking platform’s current efforts and proposes some improvements the company could make.

Facebook has a world of problems. Beyond charges of Russian manipulation and promoting fake news, the company’s signature social media platform is under fire for being addictive, causing anxiety and depression, and even instigating human rights abuses.

Company founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he wants to win back users’ trust. But his company’s efforts so far have ignored the root causes of the problems they intend to fix, and even risk making matters worse. Specifically, they ignore the fact that personal interaction isn’t always meaningful or benign, leave out the needs of users in the developing world, and seem to compete with the company’s own business model.

Based on The Digital Planet, a multi-year global study of how digital technologies spread and how much people trust them, which I lead at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, I have some ideas about how to fix Facebook’s efforts to fix itself.

Face-saving changes?

Like many technology companies, Facebook must balance the convergence of digital dependence, digital dominance and digital distrust. Over 2 billion people worldwide check Facebook each month; 45% of American adults get their news from Facebook. Together with Google, it captures half of all digital advertising revenues worldwide. Yet more people say they greatly distrust Facebook than any other member of the big five – Amazon, Apple, Google or Microsoft.

In March 2017 Facebook started taking responsibility for quality control as a way to restore users’ trust. The company hired fact-checkers to verify information in posts. Two months later the company changed its algorithms to help users find diverse viewpoints on current issues and events. And in October 2017, it imposed new transparency requirements to force advertisers to identify themselves clearly.

But Zuckerberg led off 2018 in a different direction, committing to “working to fix our issues together.” That last word, “together,” suggests an inclusive approach, but in my view, it really says the company is shifting the burden back onto its users.

The company began by overhauling its crucial News Feed feature, giving less priority to third-party publishers, whether more traditional media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post or newer online publications such as Buzzfeed or Vox. That will leave more room for posts from family and friends, which Zuckerberg has called “meaningful social interactions.”

However, Facebook will rely on users to rate how trustworthy groups, organisations and media outlets are. Those ratings will determine which third-party publishers do make it to users’ screens, if at all. Leaving trustworthiness ratings to users without addressing online political polarisation risks making civic discourse even more divided and extreme.

Personal isn’t always ‘meaningful’

Unlike real-life interactions, online exchanges can exacerbate both passive and narcissistic tendencies. It’s easier to be invisible online, so people who want to avoid attention can do so without facing peer pressure to participate. By contrast, though, people who are active online can see their friends like, share and comment on their posts, motivating them to seek even more attention.

This creates two groups of online users, broadly speaking: disengaged observers and those who are competing for attention with ever more extreme efforts to catch users’ eyes. This environment has helped outrageous, untrue claims with clickbait headlines attract enormous amounts of attention.

This phenomenon is further complicated by two other elements of social interaction online. First, news of any kind – including fake news – gains credibility when it is forwarded by a personal connection.

And social media tends to group like-minded people together, creating an echo chamber effect that reinforces messages the group agrees with and resists outside views – including more accurate information and independent perspectives. It’s no coincidence that conservatives and liberals trust very different news sources.

Users of Facebook’s instant-messaging subsidiary WhatsApp have shown that even a technology focusing on individual connection isn’t always healthy or productive. WhatsApp has been identified as a primary carrier of fake news and divisive rumors in India, where its users’ messages have been described as a “mix of off-colour jokes, doctored TV [clips], wild rumours and other people’s opinions, mostly vile.” Kenya has identified 21 hate-mongering WhatsApp groups. WhatsApp users in the UK have had to stay alert for scams in their personal messages.

Addressing the developing world

Facebook’s actions appear to be responding to public pressure from the US and Europe. But Facebook is experiencing its fastest growth in Asia and Africa.

Research I have conducted with colleagues has found that users in the developing world are more trusting of online material, and therefore more vulnerable to manipulation by false information. In Myanmar, for instance, Facebook is the dominant internet site because of its Free Basics program, which lets mobile-phone users connect to a few selected internet sites, including Facebook, without paying extra or using up allotted data in their mobile plans. In 2014, Facebook had 2 million users in Myanmar; after Free Basics arrived in 2016, that number climbed to 30 million.

One of the effects has been devastating. Rumour campaigns against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar were, in part, spread on Facebook, sparking violence. At least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed by Myanmar’s security forces between August and September 2017; 630,000 more have fled the country. Facebook did not stop the rumors, and at one point actually shut down responding posts from a Rohingya activist group.

Facebook’s Free Basics program is in 63 developing countries and municipalities, each filled with people new to the digital economy and potentially vulnerable to manipulation.

Fighting against the business model

Facebook’s efforts to promote what might be called “corporate digital responsibility” runs counter to the company’s business model. Zuckerberg himself declared that the upcoming changes would cause people to spend less time on Facebook.

But the company makes 98% of its revenues from advertising. That is only possible if users keep their attention focused on the platform, so the company can analyse their usage data to generate more targeted advertising.

Our research finds that companies working toward corporate social responsibility will only succeed if their efforts align with their core business models. Otherwise, the responsibility project will become unsustainable in the face of pressure from the stock market, competitors or government regulators, as happened to Facebook with European privacy rules.

Real solutions

What can Facebook do instead? I recommend the following to fix Facebook’s fix:

  1. Own the reality of Facebook’s enormous role in society. It’s a primary source of news and communication that influences the beliefs and assumptions driving citizen behavior around the world. The company cannot rely on users to police the system. As a media company, Facebook needs to take responsibility for the content it publishes and republishes. It can combine both human and artificial intelligence to sort through the content, labeling news, opinions, hearsay, research and other types of information in ways ordinary users can understand.
  2. Establish on-the-ground operations in every location where it has large numbers of users, to ensure the company understands local contexts. Rather than a virtual global entity operating from Silicon Valley, Facebook should engage with the nuances and complexities of cities, regions and countries, using local languages to customize content for users. Right now, Facebook passively publishes educational materials on digital safety and community standards, which are easily ignored. As Facebook adds users in developing nations, the company must pay close attention to the unintended consequences of explosive growth in connectivity.
  3. Reduce the company’s dependence on advertising revenue. As long as Facebook is almost entirely dependent on ad sales, it will be forced to hold users’ attention as long as possible and gather their data to analyse for future ad opportunities. Its strategy for expansion should go beyond building and buying other apps, like WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger, all of which still feed the core business model of monopolizing and data-mining users’ attention. Taking inspiration from Amazon and Netflix – and even Google parent company Alphabet – Facebook could use its huge trove of user data responsibly to identify, design and deliver new services that people would pay for.

Ultimately, Zuckerberg and Facebook’s leaders have created an enormously powerful, compelling and potentially addictive service. This unprecedented opportunity has developed at an unprecedented pace. Growth may be the easy part; being the responsible grown-up is much harder.

Bhaskar Chakravorti, Senior Associate Dean, International Business & Finance, Tufts University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.