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Do not shed any tears for Facebook. The company, which finds itself at the center of yet another controversy over data mining and privacy, is currently taking a lot of hits on the PR front and some lawmakers are asking uncomfortable questions, but soon enough this will blow over and Facebook will go right back to being Facebook.
The current problem centers on an obscure company called Cambridge Analytica that was allowed to harvest and store data about tens of millions of Facebook users and later use it in targeted ads for political campaigns. The operation has been described in various places as a data breach, a data leak, a data spill, and a few other terms, but none of those is really accurate. This was a business transaction. Cambridge Analytica reportedly bought the data from a third-party company that had gathered it through the use of an approved app. The fact that the company later used the data to help influence voters’ choices in the presidential election is what has generated all the outrage.
Facebook officials haven’t said a whole lot about the incident, basically pointing out that while the data was obtained legitimately, Cambridge Analytica was supposed to delete it, which it apparently did not do right away. Facebook did say in a statement that the whole company is “outraged”. It’s certainly understandable that individual employees would be angry and embarrassed by this situation. It’s a bad look and it casts the company in a harsh light, especially given the existing questions about how foreign groups used the platform to spread disinformation leading up to the 2016 election.
It’s also understandable for Facebook users to be mad. At this point, any Facebook user has to understand that the company is gathering and mining tremendous amounts of data about every user. That’s how the system works. That what Facebook is. The platform is built to collect data on billions of people, process it, and feed it into various algorithms, all in the service of selling the most micro-targeted ads possible. It’s an ad platform that allows you to see pictures of your second cousins at the Grand Canyon.
The anger about Facebook’s privacy and data-mining and -sharing practices is hardly new. It’s been bubbling up off and on for years, although this time feels a little different. The connection to the election is a big part of that. People feel duped. And so they’re lashing out at Facebook, calling on the company to be more transparent about what it does with user data and what outside companies might have access to that information. Others are suggesting that people delete their Facebook accounts and move off of the platform altogether.
There may well be a small, vocal fraction of users who decide that this is the last straw. But what won’t happen is a mass exodus from Facebook. That’s just not a realistic outcome. In the U.S., Facebook is seen as a convenient communication method, mainly for the over-35 set. It’s a place to be reminded of a vacation you took five years ago or your niece’s birthday party last summer. It’s a thing that people use out of habit and inertia.
But for millions of people around the world, Facebook is the Internet. Through the Internet.org partnership, Facebook provides free basic access to tens of millions of people in developing countries, a service that of course includes a Facebook account. Those people aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the vast majority of Facebook users in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Most people probably aren’t even aware of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, and for those who are, it likely already has been replaced in their consciousness. Things move too quickly.
Facebook is as Facebook does.