Does Facebook’s Privacy Pivot Really Mean Anything?

Everything is secure now. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Brian Feldman, Benjamin Hart, and Madison Malone Kircher discuss Mark Zuckerberg’s big (or maybe not so big) privacy gambit.

Ben: Facebook is following through on Mark Zuckerberg’s recent vow to shift the company’s focus to communication between private channels, like group texts and messages — which seems to be where the kids are these days — and away from the public-facing communication the company is known for. Is this as radical a change as it seems, or is there less here than meets the eye?

Brian: It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Madison: A ways back, Facebook made this big pronouncement about how the company was really focusing on “community.” This is just a more distilled version of that mumbo jumbo. “Community” is just groups, and Facebook wants to foster it to keep people engaged and sharing.

Ben: But isn’t it a difference in that content won’t be shared for the entire world to see?

Madison: Yes, but that’s not a marked change from what Facebook has become in recent years.

Brian: Facebook made a big deal about “privacy,” which is a nice idea, but you have to ask: Private from who? Yes, you’re only talking to your friends, or a small group, instead of posting a public status update, but you’re still going through the Facebook system, and you’re still letting them handle your data just like before.

Madison: Not to mention, if Facebook actually does make good on keeping things walled off in groups, there’s a whole other can of worms that comes with groups full of people spreading misinformation or dangerous ideas.

Ben: Right, we’ve seen that in depressing action with Facebook’s WhatsApp in Mexico and Brazil, among other places.

Brian: I am, obviously, a huge idiot sucker, but I think this sort of structural change to Facebook is good. The biggest problem with Facebook has been that it was designed to strongly encourage public sharing and resharing for a very long time. This new supposed structure, in which everything is sort of isolated from everything else, feels kind of like Reddit. Sure, there’s tons of bad shit on Reddit, but it’s not being cross-pollinated into the feeds and experiences of people who haven’t asked for it. That was arguably the News Feed’s biggest issue. Of course, all of this is hypothetical and who knows if they’ll actually follow through.

Madison: Please make sure Brian calling himself a “huge idiot sucker” goes on the site.
I feel like, as with a lot of Facebook’s changes, I find myself writing “sure, sounds good” and “great idea in theory.” But Facebook’s got a history of promising things it doesn’t deliver.

Ben: This may be a basic question, but why is Facebook doing this? Yes, the company has been struggling with terrible press almost constantly for the last few years, and yes, it’s going to be fined by the FTC for privacy violations, though a few billion dollars is a slap on the wrist for them. But Zuckerberg & Co. are still rolling in money and even adding users somehow. Even if this strategy shift isn’t as radical as it appears, why even go halfway?

Brian: It’s what people are already doing on their platforms. People are starting to share more on Stories than permanent statuses, and they’re talking a lot more in private text threads than in public comment sections. Facebook is looking at what its users are already doing and leaning into it.

Madison: It’s pretty common on Facebook-owned Instagram, too. Closed DM groups, members with private accounts — etc., etc.

Brian: There was some stat yesterday that Facebook expects story sharing to overtake status updates at some point this year. By and large, the company is doing what it has always done: looking at user behavior (on their own apps or others) and finding ways to get users to do that behavior even more. And if it just so happens they can brand this as a “privacy” thing, all the better.

Ben: I saw one person quoted in the Times theorizing that this strategy had to do with all the flak Facebook gets for the vile posts that routinely get publicly shared on its platform — the New Zealand mosque shooting being a recent, horrific example. It sounds like you don’t really buy into that.

Madison: That doesn’t really hold up given they get just as much flak, if not more, for the same kind of vile content that festers in private groups.

Brian: If I recall, this shift was also unveiled before the shooting. But there are obviously benefits for Facebook. The main advantage it derives from closed groups and encrypted messaging is that it gains the ability to not do certain things. It can’t aggressively or preemptively monitor for hate speech on encrypted messages, and by encouraging users to create and moderate their own groups, it lets their users act as enforcement, creating specific, enforceable rules for each community.

Ben: As with Reddit.

Brian: Right. And this might lighten the load of people calling on Facebook to “do more.” Their version of “do more” in this case is finding ways to shift responsibility.

Ben: As Brian noted in a post yesterday, it is pretty rich that Mark Zuckerberg is offering paeans to the virtues of privacy considering his company’s history of carelessness with user information. Is this “new” version of Facebook even more vulnerable to oversight failures than before?

Madison: We can only hope not, right? Honestly, it feels like yesterday doesn’t move the needle much at all.

Brian: Yeah, who knows. The main thing it does is give Facebook a new arsenal of excuses for poor oversight. Encryption, self-determination, etc.

Madison: I can’t wait for all the requests for comment I make to Facebook comms to just come back with a picture of Zuck standing in front of that THE FUTURE IS PRIVATE screen.

Ben: What does Facebook’s unabated success in the midst of continued bad press, and now even some federal punishment, tell us about the company? Is the company just too big to fail at this point?

Madison: There was a study this week that found Facebook will be more dead people than living ones by 2100. Until then, it’s Facebook’s world and we’re all just waiting to die in it.

Brian: Facebook has failed users on many occasions, but the only crowd that really matters is advertisers, who, for the most part, it has served diligently. They might as well exist on different planets.

Ben: I don’t like the planet where Facebook exists.

Madison: Somebody call Elon Musk.

Does Facebook’s Privacy Pivot Really Mean Anything?