Facebook released its 2018 Year In Review last week, marking various global events - elections, celebrity weddings and sporting occasions - that drove engagement on the site. What it did not look at was itself and the kind of year it had including the Cambridge Analytica and Russian disinformation scandals, and its role in spreading hate speech against Rohingya in Myanmar.  

"Facebook was caught flat-footed", explains Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent at Axios. "It was used to getting a relatively favourable reception from the press. And after Cambridge Analytica, the public and the media changed their tune and that lack of being able to see itself the way the world did certainly hamper Facebook throughout 2018, as it tended to under-react, under anticipate the level of scrutiny that it would get."

Facebook suffered another reputational blow last month, the latest of many, at the hands of the New York Times. Based on leaked internal communications, the NYT reported that Facebook had hired a Washington-based PR firm called Definers to investigate and smear some of Facebook's critics. That did not exactly square with CEO Mark Zuckerberg's sugary words of 'connecting people, building community, and bringing the world closer together'.

"The report spoke to a certain level of chaos within the company," says David Gilbert, tech reporter at Vice News. "Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg came out and said they didn't realise that the company had hired Definers." He says that while their departing head of communications Elliot Schrage admitted fault, "it just added to the sense that Facebook is a company that you couldn't really trust and that they were doing things that Facebook shouldn't really be doing".

The bottom line on Facebook will always be the numbers, and they're mixed. It has 2.2 billion users worldwide and is still growing in Asia and Africa. However, growth is stagnant in Europe and the Americas, where most of the revenues come from. And that has shaved about $1.2bn off Facebook's share value, a drop of about 30 percent.

The real threat to Facebook though, the one Mark Zuckerberg must be thinking about comes from governments and their regulators. They have been as slow to react to the Facebook problem as the company has. But more and more of them are talking about - and inching towards - reining in the social media giant.

"The only potentially effective regulatory action I've seen against Facebook has come out of the European Union with the introduction in 2018 of the General Data Protection Regulation," says cultural historian and media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia. "The very fact that now companies that take our data have to allow European citizens to explicitly offer their permission for the use of the data, I think is crucial. Those are important rights that I wish the rest of the world had."

Bernie Hogan of the Oxford Internet Institute believes that there will be more examples of governments around the world cracking down on Facebook in 2019. "I imagine within the next year we'll probably see the first example of a government just outright shutting down Facebook in that country and seeing what happens. I don't know which country it'll be, or how long it'll be for. But I imagine some government is going to want to test their resolve relative to Facebook and that will be interesting."


Siva Vaidhyanathan - University of Virginia, author 'Anti-Social Media'
David Gilbert - Tech reporter, Vice News
Bernie Hogan - Oxford Internet Institute
Ina Fried - Chief Technology correspondent, Axios

Source: Al Jazeera