We Own It founder Cat Hobbs on the Facebook data scandal.
Most of us aren’t going to #DeleteFacebook in response to the news that Cambridge Analytica has harvested the data of 50 million Facebook users to influence the US election.
It’s a huge scandal which shows how little respect Facebook has for its users, our data and privacy. But I’m definitely staying on Facebook.
I need Facebook for work, for my life, for chatting with friends and being invited to parties, for political organising and random conversations.
While deleting Facebook might sound inspiring, it feels almost impossible for most of us.
Why? Because Facebook is a natural monopoly, with ‘network effects’ in the economic jargon. That means all your friends are on there and that’s precisely why it’s valuable – to both you and the advertisers. Facebook has collected more data about people and their personalities and emotions than has ever existed and amassed it in one place. Of course you don’t want to miss out – that data is as useful to you as it is to Cambridge Analytica. You don’t want to leave because you’ll miss out on everything from event invites to cat photos, from the latest gossip to an opportunity to promote your small business.
Leaving Facebook is a bit like leaving society because Facebook is an online public space where we all gather. So what can we do about their control over our data and apparent lack of concern for our privacy?
We need to acknowledge that Facebook is now a public good, and we need to own not just our data but the whole of Facebook collectively. Facebook is
- A marketplace for ideas
- A platform where we can all hear the latest news
- A place to talk to friends and organise social events
- A place to organise politically
- A place to sell your products and services
It’s the new town square. And the thing about the town square is, it’s public infrastructure. We should all have a say over how it’s run. But we don’t.
In this online, global town square, one man controls the online lives of 2 billion people. We’re calling it the Zucktatorship.
There’s no reason why we can’t make this town square, this public good, accountable to everyone who uses it. We should all get access to the password behind Facebook and get to rewrite the code in the public interest.
And if Facebook is going to be run in the public interest, it will need to change its business model.
Is this an easy ask? No. Facebook is arguably the most powerful company and platform the world has ever seen. But let’s start talking about how we can run it differently – because change will have to happen eventually, and it should be on all of our terms.
Facebook could be run as a global, accountable cooperative, for example, and it could be funded by its members – thereby taking advertising out of its business model altogether. It wouldn’t even cost that much.
Government regulation could still apply but Facebook – and its data - would be owned and controlled by its members. The algorithm would be set in the public interest.
If we at the same time took the money out of Facebook – deciding to run it for communities rather than advertisers, it would go a long way to solving the four main problems with facebook at a stroke. We could:
1) Own our data
Data is valuable because it can be used for advertising – but if advertising with money (boosting posts instead of just letting the best posts win) isn’t an option, everyone simply competes to provide the best content. We still need absolute clarity on who owns our data and how, who has access to it, and power to remove it and control it. But misuse of data for corporate or political ends would be much less possible if advertising simply isn’t happening.
2) Stop fake news and psychological manipulation
Without access to and ability to advertise to finely tuned data sets of people, there is less ability to manipulate for commercial or political ends. But of course, in providing the best content there’s still the temptation for fake news and psychological manipulation. If we regulate Facebook collectively, we can decide where to draw the line. Where does effective communication become manipulation? We can decide.
3) Revitalise civil society on Facebook
Currently Facebook has operating profits of nearly 50%
while forcing civil society, charities, campaign groups and small businesses to pay to reach their existing fans. Publishers have already collapsed because of the new algorithm – and facebook simply says ‘leave if you don’t like it’ (but, as we’ve established, we can’t…) Facebook insists that – contrary to evidence – it has no real function as a news platform or a place for connecting with organisations but is simply a place for ‘meaningful social interactions’ (sharing photos from the latest night out). This means Facebook feeds are becoming a mixture of personal updates and adverts from big brands that can afford to pay. This is bad for users and bad for civil society. If the option of advertising was removed, Facebook would become a democratic marketplace for great ideas. Good content would go viral because people like it and want to share it, not because it's paid for.
4) Tackle our collective addiction to the internet
Facebook’s design makes us as addicted as possible in order to keep us on Facebook for the most time possible. It doesn’t have to be this way. Tech design can enable and encourage us to use time on Facebook well (see the Centre for Humane Technology)
and then get offline or do something else – instead of wanting us to keep on scrolling. But Facebook’s business model means we have to be addicted. That’s how we can be exposed to as much advertising as possible. If advertising isn’t possible, we remove the incentive for damaging, addictive tech design.
Facebook is a social utility. Unless you want to leave the online, global town square, it’s very difficult to #DeleteFacebook. But we could #OwnFacebook. We don’t have to have all the answers about how this would work. Let’s start the conversation.
If you have a problem with the #Zucktatorship, here’s what you can do:
1) Update your Facebook profile picture and cover photo with our graphics and share the #EndTheZucktatorship manifesto and video
2) Share this article by email or on twitter with the hashtag #EndTheZucktatorship
3) Talk to your friends and family in real life (!) about why we should all own Facebook, and how that might work