A very disturbing message from Oz

José Mourinho (Manchester United) once described rival manager Arsène Wenger (Arsenal) as a “specialist in failure”. I think we should start referring to Facebook as a “specialist in apologising”.

Seriously. Is there anyone out there who has recorded the number of times the company acknowledged that they “got this wrong” or that they  had “taken their eye off the ball”, insisted they were “listening” or some variation of one of these themes? I wish I had had the foresight to keep notes over the years.

Perhaps this readiness to apologise is rooted in the confessional culture which seems to be so pervasive in the USA. Everything can be made ok again as long as you admit it and throw a cloak of earnest humility over your multi-billion dollar, near-monopoly business. Do it with a bit of wit and self-deprecation and you can even come out ahead.

I agree that admitting stuff is better than covering things up or denying them but when it becomes a persistent habit you have to wonder if it hasn’t been elevated to a strategy. “Move fast and break things but when  you are completely cornered……”

At first Facebook sought to be excused their lapses because, contrary to then appearances, they were still a “small but growing company” whereas today the fact that they are so big is offered as an explanation for error. Heads I win. Tails you lose.

I mention all this by way of a preface to the revelations which have emerged courtesy of The Australian newspaper. It seems senior  Antipodean Facebook executives authorised research which looked at how advertisers might benefit from being able to present their wares to children as young as 14 who might be feeling a bit low, depressed or similar. Mood manipulation for money. Worse and worse, the Facebook users whose data the company looked at as part of the research were not aware that this was happening so, obviously, they could not consent to it. It is reassuring to know that no individual was identifiable from the research. Reassuring, but not nearly good enough.

Somehow the documents exposing what had being going on within Facebook found their way into the public domain.  Thank goodness for whistle blowers. Immediately the project was disowned by the big bosses and apparently some sort of enquiry is now underway internally. I doubt that a purely internal process will be acceptable in a matter of this sort. That is precisely the sentiment expressed in an excellent letter  just published by around 25 different privacy and consumer groups from different parts of the world.

But I guess at the end of the day the key question is this: what is it about attitudes at senior levels within Facebook that allowed the guys responsible for the Aussie experiment to think that this was or could ever be in any way acceptable? Are any similar activities taking place right now in other jurisdictions or have there been in, say, the past three years or so?

Once again, where was Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board when all this was going on?

It is true Facebook do a lot of good work in other areas, particularly with regard to detecting paedophile behaviour and dealing with child sex abuse material but when things like this occur it just makes everyone wonder what truly makes the company tick. The cultivated bonhomie starts to wear thin. The other face of Facebook is staring right at you.

I imagine what happened Down Under will have mortified many good people within Facebook who are completely and genuinely committed  to what they do in the child protection and child welfare space. They will be horrified at the idea that their employer could be linked in any way whatsoever with the possibility of exploiting youngsters in such an underhand way. They need to start a rebellion. In particular they need to focus on what I can only suppose are the  structural failings within the company that allow things like this to keep on happening.

Poor editorial and operational decisions or oversights continue to mount, making an unanswerable case for at least some degree of external regulation or scrutiny of Facebook’s affairs. I think  that is now more or less inevitable but even so one last act of redemptive contrition might soften the blow.