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Data Mishandling, Complex News Feed & Millennials Turning Away: Where Does Facebook go From Here?

Data Mishandling, Complex News Feed & Millennials Turning Away: Where Does Facebook go From Here?

With more than 2 billion people using it, Facebook may have become too big to successfully manage. But failure is perhaps not an option, for Facebook itself, and for the users who find it as an integral part of their daily lives.

Your relationship with Facebook is changing, even though you may not have realized it yet. The controversies over the past few months, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the bad press over how Russia was allegedly able to use Facebook to meddle in the American elections, are hurting the social media company. Here and now, Facebook, along with Twitter and Google, are facing the Senate Intelligence Committee as the lawmakers in the US are attempting to understand how the social media networks are curbing dangerous, fake or biased content on social media platforms.

Facebook perhaps has the most to lose, and it probably is already down that path. Its problems start with the basics. People don’t understand how it works. That was probably unimaginable a few years ago. Not so much anymore. According to the latest numbers by research firm Pew Research, 53 percent of US adults who use Facebook do not understand how the News Feed works, how the content that they see is chosen to be there and why some content is given priority over other posts. The same research suggests that only 38 percent of respondents above the age of 50 understand the dynamics of the Facebook News Feed. "They don’t feel like they have a lot of agency or control over the content that they are getting, and many of them have not actively attempted to change or shift that content. That’s particularly true for older users," said Aaron Smith, Pew's associate director of research on internet and technology issues, in an official statement.

The downward spiral has been unfolding for a while now.

In January this year, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook announced that there would be tweaks to how the News Feed unfolds every time you open the Facebook app. “Bringing People Closer Together,” was the idea—you would see more posts from friends and family, rather than businesses you follow on the social network. Not soon after, the Cambridge Analytica scandal completely changed the focus. The personal information of as many as 87 million Facebook users was risked, and the criticism that followed forced Facebook to completely revamp the settings that were available to a user, with finer controls over what data you share and what you don’t share eventually being rolled out to users. Safe to say, those changes are still work in progress.

In March, the rather uneasy relationship between Facebook and your data continued. The social media network faced even more questions after it was reported that the Facebook app on Android phones had been collecting your call and SMS text message history. It was believed that the data collected included time of voice calls, names and numbers of recipients with call duration, as well as text message metadata including recipient details and time stamps—even though you be nowhere close to an app for any of these tasks. Facebook, in its statement, denied that the data was collected covertly, and remained adamant that the users themselves gave the app permission to access contact details. “Call and text history logging is part of an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android. This helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provide you with a better experience across Facebook. People have to expressly agree to use this feature,” said Facebook, in an official statement. To be completely honest, the End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) contract which Android phone owners agreed to when they use the Facebook app, does indicate that Facebook had detailed the logging of the data in question, as a requirement. Nevertheless, not many of us actually read the EULA for anything, including app installations. This was perhaps more a case of unclear representation of facts, rather than malice.

Regulation and stricter laws, are the way forward?

Not only is Facebook now a more than integral part of our lives, communications and societal rituals as a whole, but is significantly more influential in the political space too. As is being witnessed in the US at the moment. The platform was apparently misused by Russian entities to spread content to sway voter opinion. As things stand, Facebook is more likely to face even more criticism and maybe even the threat of some legal measures, than Twitter or Google. In July, Sen. Mark Warner (Democrat - Virginia) has already laid out 20 different measures to ensure tech companies including Facebook fall in line—the measures include the European Union’s GDPR-style data portability requirements, penalties for misusing individual users' data as well as funding media literacy programs. Particularly important is the GDPR reference, because that will give the billions of Facebook users the right to allow or revoke consent for usage of their personal data by tech companies, with heavy penalties for any misuse.

In a rare admittance of the reality, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said during the testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this week, “We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That is on us,” in reference to the Russian influence being spread successfully on the social network to sway voters.

Facebook is taking help, because of the sheer magnitude of the task at hand.

“We have more than doubled the number of people working on safety and security and now have over 20,000. We review reports in over 50 languages, 24 hours a day. Better machine learning technology and artificial intelligence have also enabled us to be much more proactive in identifying abuse,” she said, at the hearing. Facebook has disabled 1.27 billion fake accounts between October 2017 and March 2018 and removed 836 million pieces of spam in the first quarter of 2018.

The challenges for lawmakers include the fact that the social media platforms merge elements of the broadcast industry, the media industry and the telecom industry, but users have significantly more control over what they share, what they see and can organize digital movements online to get their point across. Regulating this is one thing, but the anonymity of the web is still a tough challenge to deal with.

That said, while it is not going to be easy to fix Facebook. But something needs to be done. The company admitting as much in the testimonies, is perhaps a start.

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