So Mr. Zuckerberg Went To Washington

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The following was published in the Sunday, April 15, 2018 edition of Foster’s and Seacoast Sunday.

Zuckerberg Testimony

I think the woman in green represents how everyone in the room was feeling, except the members of Congress.

Amidst the outcry over revelations that the political data mining firm Cambridge Analytica inappropriately accessed and used the personal data of nearly 87 million Facebook users, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg answered the call from Congress to come to Washington, D.C.

He faced two days of questioning from House and Senate committees. The results were sometimes downright bizarre.

I think Zuckerberg should be complimented for agreeing to come to Washington and face this questioning. While many criticized Facebook’s initial response to the scandal, the company has done a lot since then and is acknowledging where it can do better. What’s that old cliché? The first step to admitting you have a problem is to say you have a problem. Facebook admits it has a problem and Zuckerberg directly apologized for the breach of the public trust and took responsibility as any good leader should.

Now, as for the value of the questioning and what it says about both Facebook and our elected representative? It sure didn’t leave me feeling great. The talk among my colleagues in the industry ranged from outright laughter to downright disgust. What came through loudest was how unprepared our elected officials are to deal with issues like this. The sheer lack of basic technical understanding from some of the members was appalling.

I could only watch bits and pieces of the sessions because I became frustrated by the lack of preparation on the part of the members, our elected officials, who have an obligation to protect our interests. The vast majority of them should be embarrassed and apologize to both Facebook and us, their constituents, for wasting our time and distracting themselves from the important work we expect from our Congress.

Instead, many grandstanded, obviously relishing the spotlight they were able to exploit for who knows what purpose. There was no real outcome from the hearings, other than Congress feeling they should legislate a solution and everyone else fearing what that legislation might look like.

The members of Congress would have been far better serving the interests of their constituents if they had consulted with industry and privacy experts to understand exactly what happened and to equally understand what complexities will come to the table in trying to prevent a recurrence. Instead, it felt like several of the members had searched for social media conspiracy theories and crafted their questions accordingly.

Clearly, it wasn’t all bad, but unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good by a significant margin. Facebook has a problem. All of social media has a problem, but perhaps the biggest problem of all is that many people still do not grasp social media for what it is. Most are platforms that do not charge any fee to the individual to be a member. Why, because they make their money in other ways. Mostly through advertising and data sharing. We all know this, so the outrage is just a tad overblown, in my humble opinion. If you wouldn’t choose to hang up a banner outside your home announcing your name, hometown, relationship status and your most precious pictures, then why would you put it on social media? If you are using a complex, technology driven platform like social media for free, shame on you if you didn’t stop to think about how the company is making money from your membership.

As I wrote about in my last column, you can do a lot to limit what information Facebook shares about you. The same is true of most social media platforms, but Facebook is the one in the spotlight at the moment. As I suggested, Facebook has made a lot of improvements to its app settings over the last several weeks. When you click the arrow next to the help icon and select settings and go to apps, you’ll find it much more obvious what apps you have allowed to be connected to your Facebook account. It’s easy to now select the apps you don’t want to have access and remove them with the click of a single button. The options for all of the apps is much easier to find and intuitive to change. The same is true for the ads settings.

So unlike one senator or congressman who made the statement that he likes chocolate and didn’t understand why after he mentioned chocolate on Facebook he started seeing chocolate ads, hopefully you understand how that happens and how to manage your exposure.

Hopefully, this entire fiasco has made you a more educated social media user. I wish the same were true for the people who have the power to limit and regulate the technology we have access to. Hopefully they will catch up to their constituents, many of whom were shaking their heads this week.

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