The American post-war generations gave a collective belly laugh last week when 84-year-old Sen. Orrin Hatch, R‑Utah, asked Mark Zuckerberg with stark earnestness:
“If [a version of Facebook will always be free], how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
Mark Zuckerberg, with his voldemort-esque visage, responded: “Senator, we run ads.”
Then, he smirked. But that was early on in the course of a day’s grilling.
The absurdity continued.
“How many data categories do you store, does Facebook store, on the categories that you collect?” Sen. Deb Fischer Rep. Nebraska asked. “How much? All of it? Everything we click on? Is that in storage somewhere?”
“From the moment that we wake up in the morning, until we go to bed, we’re on those handheld tablets,” Sen. Bill Nelson Dem. Florida said.
The videos went viral. Conversations proliferated about the general ignorance of our swamp-dwelling elected officials. And incredulous laughter resounded just as it had in 2006, when Sen. Ted Stevens, Rep. Alaska asserted that “the internet is a series of tubes” in his argument against network neutrality.
Zuckerberg was supposed to be fielding questions about a data leak concerning over 87 million Facebook users to a British outfit, Cambridge Analytica. Instead, Zuckerberg fielded questions which could easily be explained in a community college marketing 101 course.
But despite these blunders, the hearing put a mirror up to America and showed that these senators have just as much knowledge of Facebook as the rest of us.
Though estimates vary, studies have shown that very few people read the fine print. A recent survey by Scoopshot, shows that 30 percent of people even open the terms and agreements page. A little over 17 percent of responders said they always read the page.
Not reading contracts is a bad habit. But we want what we want when we want it. And if a contract stands in the way, click around it.
Months back, Facebook newsfeeds rippled with hushed rumors of facebook selling user information to marketing companies. The reaction was slack-jawed shock.
But in its terms of agreement, to which each user must assent, the company has hidden nothing. They clearly state that they may use all information they receive about you to serve ads that are more relevant to you. That information includes:
- Information provided at registration, or that is added to your account or timeline
- Things you share on Facebook, what you like, and interactions with advertisers
- Keywords from your stories
- Things Facebook infers from your use of its website
And by clicking a single forest-green sign up button, two billion people, 1.4 billion of whom never even bothered to skim the agreement, sold themselves over.
Sen. Hatch doesn’t seem so dumb now, does he?
The rest of the enlightened Gen-Xers, Millenials, and Gen-Zers can feel superior. But that is only because they know how to use the software better. They can check where Facebook algorithms place them on the political spectrum and use adblock in an attempt to stem the effects of the information sale. But just like any user, they too believed (if only briefly) that Melania Trump had a body double that attended events for her.
They read articles titled “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” and “ISIS leader calls for American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton.”
We were all duped. But we duped ourselves into trusting Facebook, a monolith that is too big and important to have our interests at heart.
Two months ago, Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein of Wired.com published “Inside the two years that shook Facebook — and the world,” a narrative account about Zuckerberg’s apprehension of fake news threats through the “Trending Topics” feature and how the media giant understands itself as an outlet for journalism.
According to Thompson and Vogelstein, after several leaks to Gizmodo concerning liberal bias within Facebook, the contracted employees with journalism experience who administered Trending Topics were fired.
Facebook executives then gave authority over the project to a team of engineers based in Seattle. With only an algorithm standing as sentry against the infection of fake news stories, Trending Topics became porous, allowing an article titled “Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out For Backing Hillary” just a few days later.
Because of this, Thompson and Vogelstein suggest that Facebook’s true problem is a lack of journalism experience in the company.
Hiring more employees with journalism experience may help. But at its core, Facebook is a company which feeds on convenience, on instantaneous information, and on advertisement.
Facebook users have not even realized the fundamental structure of its business plan, and perhaps that indicates why many are so ready to trust it for news coverage.
Facebook draws the worst instincts of basic hunger and demand from its users. Waiting is not an option. Hit the forest-green Sign Up button. Do not read the fine print. Do not read the masthead. Scroll down to the meat. Trust blindly. Satisfy yourself. Click. Click. Click.
But what Thompson and Vogelstein also understand is that many people receive news solely from stories shared on Facebook. These people receive information primarily through a company whose motive is to sell advertisements, not to produce credible news.
But Facebook can’t take blame for its own nature. It is a company. Companies make money by selling products. Companies are shaped by market forces. They are not shaped by a commitment to thorough, ethical reporting like major news outlets.
Facebook may have a fake news problem they need to solve, but it seems most of America has a Facebook problem. This population’s only contact with knowledge outside the rumblings of everyday life is through a company that is not directly incentivized to tell the truth, one that will succeed whether the truth is printed on its web pages or not.
It may come as a surprise to some that many news outlets have a home page. Access is often granted by typing the name of the publication and plopping a “.com” onto the end of it. The homepage of a publication is a vital tool. It links you directly with the news.
The only arbiter of truth is the publication itself, and most serious publications would fold if untruth was printed regularly. Find a publication to trust and read its news. Save Facebook for cute dog videos and inspirational quotes.
Sen. Hatch may need an elementary computer class, but at least he is skeptical. Everyone else needs to wake up from the Facebook daze.
Mark Naida is a Senior studying French and English