2018 is likely to be remembered as the year Facebook lost its "glow" with consumers. (JOEL SAGET/AFP/GettyImages)
Have you decided to quit Facebook yet?
It's not an idle question. This holiday season, a notable number of my "friends" on the social network are openly contemplating quitting; as if they were making a list of New Year's resolutions and a clean break from the mesmerizing newsfeed seemed a sensible addition to goals like losing ten pounds and calling mom more often.
In 2018, we learned that Facebook's bid for global growth led it to willfully ignore warnings that the platform was being used to confuse and manipulate users.
Also, there were stories about widespread data breaches, political manipulation and even race baiting that led to real world violence. For a company that likes to tout its ability to bring communities together, Facebook has been struggling to maintain the image of a good corporate citizen.
When the year began, Facebook was already on the defensive trying to explain why Russian actors were able to attempt to sway voters with such apparent freedom and sophistication during the 2016 presidential election. Then Congress wanted in on the public conversation.
Here is Anna Eshoo, one of Silicon Valley’s congressional representatives, grilling Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg back in April.
The congressional hearings followed explosive reports that the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had access to detailed, personal information on millions of Facebook users during 2016.
But even as that story scandalized the world, it also lifted the curtain on Facebook’s business model, built on offering detailed, personal information to all kinds of advertisers. The pitch is this: more than two billion monthly, active users you can sift through to target specific interest groups.
"We’ve known for a long time that these algorithms were at risk of manipulation," said Kurt Wagner, who covers social media for the technology news outfit Recode.
"What 2018 did was kind of open everyone’s eyes to the fact that it can also be manipulated for much more sinister purposes, which is what we saw around the 2016 election, trying to turn people against one another by stoking these really important but divisive issues," Wagner said.
It was also impossible in 2018 to ignore a growing number of reports about Facebook failing to address race-baiting and even violence in countries like Malaysia and Nigeria, where the social platform has expanded.
Facebook has since begun hiring tens of thousands of hate speech screeners and it works more closely now with third parties to bolster its efforts to clean up its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram.
"Yes, the companies were caught flat-footed. But they probably shouldn’t have been, given that there were people warning about this for years prior," said academic researcher Aviv Ovadya, who is launching a nonprofit focused on technology’s impact on the information ecosystem.
Ovadya argued we’re careening toward a future where the ability to distort reality shakes the foundations of democracy. Also, that Facebook is so big, it might want to think about independent advisory boards for each of its individual products in every geographic region.
For instance, an advisory board for not only WhatsApp in Malaysia, but also the Rohingya community on WhatsApp in Malaysia.
"Companies like Facebook need better ways of interfacing with third parties in order to actually gain advice and contacts about what the impacts of what they’re doing have on the world," Ovadya said.
Ovadya was much gentler in his criticism than the Hungarian businessman George Soros, who reportedly inspired a Facebook smear campaign after he laid into the social media giant at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, arguing that Facebook and Google are threatening democratic government.
"There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance," Soros said. "This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined."
Soros was simply following in the footsteps of Chamath Palihapitiya, an early senior executive at Facebook, who argued along similar lines in November 2017.
As this year winds to a close, media coverage continues to direct the public narrative about Facebook, increasingly with the help of former employees like Palihapitiya.
That's how we learned explosive tidbits like the recent revelation the company allowed other tech giants access to content many Facebook users would find invasive.
Netflix and Spotify, for example, were able to read Facebook users’ private messages. Sony, Microsoft, Amazon and were able to glean users’ email addresses through their friends.
Some angry users have started a #DeleteFacebook movement. But it's not clear there are enough people so upset they’d be willing to quit Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp altogether -- that would be the market signal that pressures the company to change in a big way.
In the meantime, Facebook and its subsidiaries continue to rake in huge profits from advertising to their global customer base of billions.
How Facebook will do in 2019 depends on its willingness to become more transparent, Ovadya said. But others, like Wagner of Recode, aren’t so sure. Wagner said Facebook has a consumer trust issue.
"I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that can be fixed with a marketing campaign. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg can go on the Today Show and say something really witty that’s going to make people think that he or the company has changed," he said. "So I think that’s the company’s toughest challenge. How do you regain trust once you’ve lost it? I don’t know if it’s even possible."