Facebook’s CEO hopes this is the moment when everything starts to get better.
Top execs at the social media company have been trying to navigate it out of a PR crisis morass that has engulfed it since the beginning of last year, when reports revealed the company afforded Cambridge Analytica improper access to user data.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other company bigwigs have embarked on media apology tours. The platform has shared blog posts and tweets from security experts. Most recently, Zuckerberg promised to host a series of big tech discussions on how huge industry players could help society and build a better world.
Now, Zuckerberg is trying an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
The piece, titled “The Facts About Facebook,” attempts to address the concerns that have arisen in the last 12 months.
Despite seeing off Congress and the European Parliament, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook apology tour shows no signs of stopping. His latest peace offering is a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “The Facts About Facebook.” It sees him pausing to reflect on Facebook’s past ahead of its 15th birthday — “I built a service people could use to connect and learn about each other” — before diving into a defence of its ad-targeting exploits.
The message remains the same: Zuck explains that Facebook is a free service and therefore it serves users “relevant ads” to make money, but never sells their data. This time, however, it’s meant as much for Facebook’s investors (who read the WSJ) as its users. It was only in November that Zuckerberg said he would not be stepping down as chairman of the social network. He was forced to make the statement in the wake of an explosive report that alleged, among other things, that Facebook knew of Russian activity on its site since 2016 (even though details of the campaign didn’t come out till 2017).
Zuckerberg also reiterated that he isn’t against Facebook being regulated, an idea that seemed to have bipartisan support during the Congress hearings. “Ultimately I believe the most important choices around data are transparency, choice and control,” said the Facebook CEO. “We believe regulation that codifies these principles across the internet would be good for everyone.”
The piece was an attempt on Zuckerberg’s part to explain his business model, an important message for investors (and members of the U.S. Congress) who might not have grasped the finer points. Zuckerberg’s main message focused on how the company makes money and whether it sells user data to outside parties.
Countering what he said were common misconceptions, Zuckerberg said Facebook FB, +0.99% does not sell its user data, since doing so “would be counter to our business interests, because it would reduce the unique value of our service to advertisers,” and denied that “clickbait and other junk” helps the company by driving engagement. “It would be foolish for us to show this intentionally, because it’s not what people want,” he wrote.
Zuckerberg also said Facebook is committed to ridding its users’ newsfeeds of harmful or divisive content.
“People consistently tell us they don’t want to see this content,” he said. “Advertisers don’t want their brands anywhere near it. The only reason bad content remains is because the people and artificial-intelligence systems we use to review it are not perfect — not because we have an incentive to ignore it. Our systems are still evolving and improving.”
Though Zuckerberg’s message might have been intended for investors and regulators, the news was picked up by other outlets—and consumers certainly saw it and had opinions of their own.
Catie Keck for Gizmodo was dismissive of the message:
In 2018, we learned that Facebook was data-sharing with other companies like Microsoft’s Bing, Spotify, Netflix, and others in exchange for more information about its users. There were also the revelations that Cambridge Analytica data-scraping was worse than we thought; that Facebook was sharing shadow contact information with advertisers; and that turning off Facebook location-sharing doesn’t stop it from tracking you. That’s obviously totally aside from the George Soros conspiracy theory fiasco; its mishandling of Myanmar genocide; and its standing as a hotbed for rampant misinformation.
As with his year-end Facebook post—which I’ll note here also largely ignored the tsunami of public relations problems the company faced last year—Zuckerberg appears to remain bafflingly optimistic about the function of his company. To be clear, this is the same founder of Facebook who once called users of his product “dumb f***s” for trusting him with their sensitive information.
If users don’t trust Facebook, it’s not because they don’t understand it. It’s because they do.
Others saw the skill behind the op-ed’s creation:
Zuckerberg acknowledges the “complexity” of the company’s advertising model has led to yet more concerns, including whether Facebook sells user data or deliberately allows controversial content to remain on the site in order to “increase engagement.”
The CEO has answers there too.
He reiterates, “we don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do.” And, “clickbait and other junk may drive engagement in the near term, but it would be foolish for us to show this intentionally, because it’s not what people want.”
It’s a carefully worded statement that allows Zuckerberg to acknowledge Facebook users’ gripes, all while framing them in his own words — a neat first-person call and response that sets out to allay fears without airing some of the more challenging questions that some users may actually be asking. (Still, within hours of the op-ed being published, the comments were already filling with readers throwing in less PR-polished questions of their own.)
Others noted that Zuckerberg was adopting a new tactic by targeting The Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) instead of posting directly to his Facebook profile.
Business Insider wrote:
Zuckerberg’s choice of The Journal marks a departure from his standard practice of speaking to users directly through his personal Facebook page (as he’s done to address issues from planned content-moderation reforms to leaked emails about data policies) and reflects the pressure on the company as it comes under intense regulatory scrutiny.
The Journal is a premium, business-focused newspaper with an influential audience that includes institutional investors and politicians. It’s hardly the most effective medium for getting out a message to the general public — it’s behind an expensive paywall, while Zuckerberg owns a social network with almost 2.3 billion monthly active users — and as such, the column indicates Facebook’s communications team is trying to get a positive, undiluted case for Facebook in front of important eyeballs.
Asked for comment, the Facebook representative Elisabeth Diana said there was “no real rationale — WSJ is read in several countries.” Zuckerberg reposted the Journal column on his personal Facebook page.
However, Facebook did try to boost the message through other social media channels:
— Facebook (@facebook) January 25, 2019
On Twitter, some dismissed the op-ed:
Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed about Facebook
He fails to engage with any of the critical discussions or reporting about his company, his industry, his country and his world and continues to peddle fantasies about community and expression despite it all.https://t.co/g6ajZ1rria
— Hamza Shaban (@hshaban) January 25, 2019
Others were pleased with it and happy to say so:
Great new column in the @WSJ “The Facts about Facebook” by Mark Zuckerberg.
— Christopher Woods (@kingcwoods) January 25, 2019
Some found it inaccurate or dishonest:
— Liz Peek (@lizpeek) January 25, 2019
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends use of personal data in WSJ op-ep
Wow…not sure whether to be IMpressed that someone could deliver this with a straight face or DEpressed that we’ve achieved new heights in the Post-Truth Era
— Steve Shillingford (@sws2045) January 25, 2019
Others questioned Zuckerberg’s choice of outlet:
Isn’t there some irony about Mark Zuckerberg writing an op-ed in the one major US newspaper that has a paywall so that all of us whose personal information is constantly monetized by companies like @facebook would need to pay to read why that’s okay? https://t.co/DxbioxvjiF
— Joshua A. Geltzer (@jgeltzer) January 25, 2019
If you want billions of people who use your service to be able to read your CEO’s op-Ed, please don’t place it in a publication that puts it behind a paywall. Or is the @WSJ targeted towards your customers, businessesC instead of consumers? https://t.co/AY1CnVrqjY pic.twitter.com/M20zU1rbTN
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) January 25, 2019
What do you think of Zuckerberg’s move, Ragan/PR Daily readers?