Let’s be really generous to Facebook and assume that 50% of what Frances Haugen just testified about before the congress was misunderstood in some way.
Either way, Facebook will argue their case (as they always do), deny everything (as they always do), and claim that no one really understands them (as they always do). Everyone will look at what they say with extreme skepticism and nothing will change.
Maybe Facebook does not care. Perhaps the possibility of repealing their liability from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the threat of antitrust prosecution, the implementation of a US privacy framework similar to that found in Europe, and the inability to get Washington to authorize Libra (Facebook’s digital payment system) ) everyone is indifferent.
Facebook is rich and powerful. They may think they can handle anything that comes their way. But the US government and the media together are much more powerful. And that’s why Facebook needs to change their strategy on pretty much everything that pertains to politics, regulation, and the media.
While Facebook’s lawyers and lobbyists are digging into the next phase of an epic, costly confrontation, they should instead mark an alternative course of humility, introspection and transparency as their best and only strategy for sustaining growth.
What does this look like? Well, it starts with an apology.
It’s incredible that someone as smart as Mark Zuckerberg can have such a hard time expressing real adversity when required. Not every mistake will oblige the CEO to pull himself over the bullets. But right now? He needs to change his attitude and start accepting responsibility and then actually implement real change.
Take, for example, Haugen’s testimony about an internal study that found that Instagram has a negative impact on teenage girls’ mental health.
That’s a problem Facebook have Owning. They should will have to own it. Because while the federal government is unlikely to step in and censor Instagram, parents are likely to do so. As much as my wife and I try to let our teenage daughter make her own decisions, the more we know about Instagram, the more convinced we are that its negative effects far outweigh any useful purpose it serves in her life. And we are not alone. At some point soon we could be the majority.
Second, it’s time for Facebook to be much more straightforward about its underlying business model. Consumers are not stupid; we know we are not getting anything for nothing. So instead of pretending they are not making money on people’s data in every possible way, Facebook should just be honest about it.
“If you want to keep using Facebook / Instagram / WhatsApp for free, we will sell ads based on your data.” And then give the public an alternative: “If you want your data protected, you have to pay the platform a monthly fee to compensate for the lost revenue.” People do not like it at first, but they understand it and they will appreciate being treated like adults.
Third, Facebook must admit the truth about content moderation: “We thought we knew better than anyone else about everything; we dug in as we honestly should have researched and changed our practices and policies. We’re really, really sad. We are willing to change. ”
Some of this may involve sharing oversight responsibilities with third parties such as regulators and academics. This probably means removing some content that generates clicks and ad revenue. It may even mean removing some of the top executives responsible for stubbornly implementing the deny-reality strategy over the last 10 years. It will hurt, of course. They still have to do it.
Finally, if Facebook wants to engage in federal law around issues like confidentiality restrictions, new antitrust standards, or repealing Section 230, they should stop trying to outsmart and transcend all.
Instead, Facebook should engage with its critics – in both parties and in both houses of Congress – to work towards a solution that embraces the ideals of existing privacy frameworks such as Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA and recognizes that one has full immunity from all that is said on your platform must change. Be a part of the change, not the roadblock for it.
This is not China. Our government will not just one day ban Facebook or Instagram. But that does not mean that Facebook will not be subject to new laws, rules, standards and social norms.
Facebook has alienated the media. They have lost the progressives. They have lost the Conservatives. They have made the center furious. And while revenues continue to grow, they have also lost the trust and confidence of the public.
Leaders may be concerned that once the legislative flywheel begins to turn, it will never stop. But we are far above that point. If Facebook does not begin to express remorse, accountability and openness to change, they also risk losing everything else they have built.