An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Mark, last week you published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal complaining that Facebook is getting a bad rap despite all the good it has done. You...

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Mark, last week you published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal complaining that Facebook is getting a bad rap despite all the good it has done. You are right on many counts but increasing Facebook’s value for its shareholders has become your sole obsession. You are seriously ignoring how Facebook is being used for mass manipulation and false propaganda.

I watched your testimony in the Senate hearings last year.  It was clear to me that of all the people in the room, you were the only one who really understood what led to the Russian hacking of our 2016 presidential elections.  But you restrained yourself from sharing what you knew because that might have angered the legislators.

The hearings were a pathetic display of our legislators’ ignorance of Facebook.  Most of them have very little understanding of how wonderful Facebook has been for the success of the aspiring musicians, singers, writers, comedians, brand influencers — with little advertising dollars — and also for small businesses — the underpinning of our economy.

The senators accused you of capturing personal data and keeping users longer on Facebook so that you could show more targeted ads to grow your revenue.  They forget that media has done that for centuries. 

Showing targeted advertisements —ideally — is a far better solution than interrupting television viewers every 8-10 minutes, with irrelevant ones.  Respecting people’s time earns their loyalty; you get it.

To better understand how Facebook technology was abused, we can learn from Russian interference in the election.

Like the iPhone, Facebook allows apps like Yelp to work on their platform, making it more universal.

In 2014, a contractor recruited by Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm, created a personality test app called ThisIsYourDigitalLife.  Users could sign into the app with their Facebook ID and 270,000 users opted to do that. By signing up, the users inadvertently granted permission to the app to collect personal information from their Facebook profiles.

Even worse, ThisIsYourDigitalLife was also allowed to collect profiles of the users’ Facebook-friends — which Facebook has now stopped. With that, data of 50 million users ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica.

Based on this data, Cambridge Analytica developed political profiles of these users.  They sold these to some of our presidential candidates, including Donald Trump but also to companies linked to Russian intelligence to show appropriate campaign ads.

Russian operatives went further, creating fake accounts and web robots, or bots.  Bots are software programs that a third party can embed on a website.  Bots are very useful for enhancing productivity.   Google can give us the latest search results; the bots run in the background scanning millions of websites.  Stock traders bots automatically collect information by searching and clicking on thousands of web pages, for daily stock picks,  saving brokers thousands of hours of work.

Russian troll farms posted fake posts and used bots to “like” and “follow” them. Facebook’s AI algorithms then boosted those posts to their users, creating an echo system of sub-groups and rivalries.

Cambridge Analytica’s data analytics pointed the trolls to promote ads to black undecided voters, for example, and turn them against Hillary Clinton. Whether it changed the final outcome of the election remains unknown.

Mark, you understand technology and how Facebook helped bad guys spread and amplify discord and disinformation before the election. More recently, Russian internet trolls created further polarization over NFL players taking a knee.

Have you done enough to fix this?

No.  Even today, Facebook embeds users’ private information and permission under a little  arrow on the right, under “Settings” — very non-intuitive.  It took me a while to find it.

You claim that your AI algorithms are not yet fast enough to prevent boosting of fake news and accounts.  You know that machine learning can be accelerated with human training.  Is this a priority?

Major newspapers, with a fraction of your audience of 2B, have editorial boards headed by respected people to ensure the integrity of the news. How big and active is your editorial board?

Our democratic institutions are rooted in the First Amendment which ensures freedom of the press.  But media must follow the laws and so should social media — but current laws are not applicable.

To our Members of Congress:

Do you see the severity of the issue? 

New laws are required for the changing social media driven economy.  The definition of a customer has changed.  Are Facebook’s users their product or customers?  Unlike readers of newspapers and TV viewers, Facebook users are its news-reporters but also the readers.

Anti-trust laws were enacted to prevent large companies from monopolizing pricing that hurts consumers. Facebook is a huge monopoly — two billion active users, $50 billion in revenue and nearly $500 billion market cap.

Lawmakers, how can you sleep at night knowing this?

Finally, Mark, this is your opportunity. Go for the 2020 presidential run!  Leave Sheryl Sandberg in charge of Facebook — which she is fully capable of running— and move to Washington to redesign this country for our next generation where the engine of innovation and democratic values can flourish.

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11 comments

  1. Naren Gupta Reply

    An exceptional, balanced, and non-partisan commentary and advice.

    The advice applies to every leader in the tech industry. Our jobs do not end at enabling fascinating advances in technology. Our true calling is to make technology benefit everyone.

    Naren

  2. Pankaj Jain Reply

    Vinita,

    Thanks for informed and wise comments. It will help if you could give suggestions, which in your judgment are technologically and institutionally implementable in current times. Not sure if contesting presidential election is an appropriate advice to Mark.

    Regarding the responsibility of corporate heads who ends up exercising power-influence due to the success of their business, how much of ‘social responsibility of eliminating misuse of their business model/ product/ service’, (which normally is the responsibility of government to design and of law-enforcer to implement), how much is ‘enough’?

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      Social media driven environment is technically and legislatively challenging. Not sure if I know the answers. It would be great to hear others point of views.

  3. Jeff Reply

    I found this an interesting and helpful article until the last paragraph.

    “Finally, Mark, this is your opportunity. Go for the 2020 presidential run! Leave Sheryl Sandberg in charge of Facebook — which she is fully capable of running— and move to Washington to redesign this country for our next generation where the engine of innovation and democratic values can flourish.”

    When you have just appropriately skewered a self centered CEO for failing his country, whatever would make one think that we would vote for a man to lead the country who has let us down so badly?

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      David Kirkpatrick, author of a recent book called ‘The Facebook Effect’ interviewed MZ several times and got to know him. In his interview on Youtube at the 10 min mark, he shares, “..they did not know what they were walking into. They did not know that the myriad ways that the service they created can be abused. They did not build the governance they needed.”
      He is singularly focused on Facebook, as entrepreneurs tend to do. He obviously does not need money — in my opinion.

  4. Timothy Crofton Reply

    As a small business, I find Facebook extremely helpful. My clients are Silicon Valley engineers. With Facebook, I can specify age brackets and neighborhoods to market my listings too. This eliminates my clogging up some 14 year old kids inbox with adds that they do not want or need. To be perfectly honest, I am sad that they eliminated demographics from the profile. 95% of my clients are Indian and Chinese. It would be nice if I could specify 40+ years of age, Silicon Valley, Indian or Chinese, like I used to. Because of the need to be politically correct, I am sending ads to people who are not my target market.
    Timothy

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience with Facebook, amongst all the controversies surrounding the platform.

  5. Arvind K. Reply

    A well-written summary and commentary. I liked your point about Mark Zuckerberg being “the only one who really understood what led to the Russian hacking” but withholding the information because of self-interest.

    However, it’s hard to agree with your urging Mr. Zuckerberg to run for president. Surely creating this mess doesn’t qualify him. If anything, he should take ownership of fixing the problems created by Facebook.

    Recently I came across a way to download the data Facebook has on me:
    https://www.facebook.com/help/1701730696756992

    Although I’m a very light user, the volume of data was eye-opening. Other folks have been astonished to discover that their phone’s entire contact list was uploaded to Facebook when setting up Messenger. And people whom they’d ‘unfriended’ ages ago continue to be remembered by Facebook.

    Most of this is not just Facebook, it probably applies to Google too. It can be argued that they have learnt about us based on what we gave up voluntarily, but they have also acquired and retained data about our friends who didn’t sign up. And for the ‘voluntary’ part: we continue to be startled by what we have given up by clicking the “I Agree” button, by the “legal fiction of consent” as a NY Times editorial put it elegantly.

    1. vinitagupta Reply

      The question of whether a mess creator should lead the charge to fix the problem is a good one.

  6. Mihir Meghani Reply

    Well articulated Vinita.

  7. Anu Pareek Reply

    Thank you for a well written commentary. However, it would have been more effective if you had kept your personal political biases out of the article. You talked about only republicans getting access to this data. It is a fact that the Obama campaign, in 2010, also downloaded data on millions of Facebook users via Facebook’s Graph API without the consent and knowledge of voters. There was no hue and cry at that time at the New York Times or Washington Post or any other news organization.

    “We ingested the entire U.S. social graph,” Carol Davidsen, director of data integration and media analytics for Obama for America, told The Washington Post this week. “We would ask permission to basically scrape your profile, and also scrape your friends, basically anything that was available to scrape. We scraped it all.”

    Please read following articles in Washington Post and Reason to get all the details. I agree that Facebook needs to be held accountable. I do not believe Mark Zuckerberg can be trusted to be President of the United States. He has not shown himself to be morally capable.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/facebooks-rules-for-accessing-user-data-lured-more-than-just-cambridge-analytica/2018/03/19/31f6979c-658e-43d6-a71f-afdd8bf1308b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee263a9d7e63

    https://reason.com/archives/2018/03/23/cambridge-analytics-dust-up-reveals-lawm