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23 March 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 12:15pm

That Facebook is terrible at PR is unsurprising – and it’s partly the media’s fault

The company could have controlled the narrative over Cambridge Analytica, but it has grown complacent in the face of limited scrutiny.

Most of us would be justified in complaining of a bad week had we lost a wallet with £50 in it. This week, Facebook lost more than $50 billion from their market value. While the company could be forgiven for hoping the weekend comes quickly, the number of ways in which it is the architect of its own misfortune are glaring.

This includes substantive moves Facebook could have made earlier – the most basic of which being informing individual users affected by Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting when it was first publicly revealed back in November 2015. But beyond this, it could have been more careful about honouring a 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which required the company to make sure users had an informed choice over what happened to their data, and it could have thought far more carefully about users’ data and privacy far sooner.

But in reality, the tech giant would be facing far fewer questions had it simply got its PR strategy right this week. On the face of it, Facebook has quite a good story to tell over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, yet it has told none of it.

The way Facebook could have shaped the narrative would go something like this. A UK academic got permission from Facebook to use its tools (known as an API) to conduct research into social media profiles and personality. Without its knowledge, he then sold the data from this quiz to a political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, which used it to harvest information on the friends of 270,000 people who took the quiz – building a database of around 50 million people.

Facebook changed how its tools work to make such harvesting impossible in 2014 and 2015. What’s more, when, in 2015, it learned of what Cambridge Analytica had done, Facebook took action and wrote to the company, demanding it certify that all of the data had been deleted, which it did.

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And when, after being contacted by the Observer this week, Facebook learned this promise of deletion may not have been accurate, the company suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform pending investigation.

Framed in this way, Facebook had a decent story to tell. It could have tried to position itself as one of the victims of what it could paint as a rogue company, Cambridge Analytica. It could have framed the story as being one about harvesting and collecting Facebook data without permission, and tried to keep the focus tightly on that.

This is more-or-less what Mark Zuckerberg tried to do when he finally appeared in public four days after the story broke. But by then it was far too late: by waiting so long before having anything coherent to say, the story had already been framed by the world’s media – and the problem for Facebook is that it wasn’t just the harvesting of the data that alarmed the public, it was the very act of using information to micro-target advertisements itself.

That represents a much bigger problem for Facebook, as people around the world are now alarmed by the very core of its business model, and the company has been left facing probes by lawmakers and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Its inevitable that the social media firm would have felt some repercussions of this reporting, but it’s hard not to conclude that the sting could have at least been taken out of the tail of the story with better public relations.

So why is one of the world’s biggest communications companies so bad at communicating? The glaring answer is that, up until recently, the press have entirely failed to hold Facebook to account, allowing it to build a user base bigger than the population of any country, while receiving almost no scrutiny from a media more interested in holding up Silicon Valley as a community of geniuses changing the world.

That’s finally changing – but what this week has shown is that our lack of scrutiny has not only been bad for the public, but that it’s also been bad for Facebook itself. Hopefully, this week marks the beginning of a lasting change.

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