Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to ‘fix’ Facebook, but new changes may only be skin deep

Despite the company announcing new measures, it’s still not clear if these tweaks will produce lasting change, or if they are only cosmetic improvements to generate goodwill, while also keeping Facebook’s business strong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2018, 10:45am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 2018, 10:45am

To Mark Zuckerberg, fixing Facebook means many things – protecting users from abuse, preventing election meddling, weeding out fake news and “making sure time spent on Facebook is well spent”.

But for many critics of Facebook the steps taken so far strike them as insufficient, and in some cases are aimed as much at keeping people glued to the service in the future as at really addressing Facebook’s underlying problems.

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Zuckerberg, who publicly sets himself a “personal challenge” every year, has in 2018 set himself the task of “fixing Facebook”.

But fixing Facebook, critics say, should also involve making it less addictive and its business model less dependent on as many people logging in as often and for as long as possible. It’s also definitely not about creating new products for younger kids who can’t use its flagship platform, particularly amid all the worries about Facebook’s effects on the health of adults and teens.

The company has already announced a slew of new “fixes”. It’s just far from clear if these tweaks will produce lasting change, or if they’re merely cosmetic adjustments designed to generate goodwill while also keeping Facebook’s business strong.

Recently, for instance, Facebook said that it would show users more posts from friends and family that it deems “meaningful”, while lowering the priority of posts from publishers and businesses. The move did not affect paid advertising on the site, and it follows Zuckerberg’s declaration last year that Facebook would focus on helping users find “meaningful” online groups.

Much of that, says eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson, is about “making Facebook a happier place for users”. Even though Facebook warned that its changes might result in people spending less time with it, she suspects the company really hopes users will stick around longer.

Mark Zuckerberg will not solve the problems of Facebook by changing a few settings
Marc Rotenberg

Facebook enjoyed strong revenue, profit and all-time stock highs in 2017, but there are signs that users – for whatever reason – may be pulling back from the service.

According to comScore, Facebook visitors spend an average of 910 minutes on the platform in December 2017. That is down from 974 minutes in December 2016 and from 1,050 minutes in the same month in 2015. At least some of this pullback might be by design, and it might be temporary. Zuckerberg has said the company’s work to encourage “meaningful connections” has already reduced total time spent on Facebook by “roughly 50 million hours every day”. Divided across Facebook’s 1.4 billion daily active users, that is about two minutes a day.

He added that the changes will make Facebook’s community – and business – “stronger over the long term”.

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Zuckerberg has previously said that it may take “months” for Facebook’s changes to make their way to users. Facebook had no immediate response to broader criticism of its strategy. In the fourth quarter, the company said net income rose 20 per cent on revenue that jumped 47 per cent to US$13 billion. Facebook saw a 14 per cent increase in monthly users, to 2.13 billion; daily users also grew by 14 per cent.

Facebook’s other recent fixes amount to somewhat murky efforts to boost the visibility of “trusted” news sources – as determined by two-question user surveys and Facebook’s vast trove of data on user behaviour – and of local news.

Such changes are “not meaningful”, Marc Rotenberg, president of the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Centre and long-time Facebook critic, says. “Mark Zuckerberg will not solve the problems of Facebook by changing a few settings.”

Rotenberg would prefer Facebook to give users more control over how their data is collected and to back efforts in the United States Congress aimed at preventing foreign governments from influencing US elections.

Like other social media companies, Facebook has said it will try to prevent election meddling and will require disclosure on political ads – but it’s been silent about proposed legislation that would require it to do so.

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Some of its other steps are also half measures. For instance, while it set up a page to let people see if they followed or “liked” Russia propaganda accounts, it is not notifying anyone proactively via email, the way Twitter is.

“Facebook’s recent changes do not address the threats to elections or public health,” said Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early Facebook investor who is now among the company’s most vocal critics.

“If the news feed changes had been made in 2015, they might have had the perverse effect of magnifying election interference,” McNamee said. “And you cannot cure addiction by doing more of the thing that got you addicted in the first place, which is what Zuck recommends,” he wrote.