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Facebook's Zuckerberg's own Q&A is carefully staged

Editorial Staff

On 4th April, Mark Zuckerberg was in full PR mode: he'd posted family photos on Facebook, carefully emphasising that in his house both Jewish and Christian festivals are marked with food but no sign of frivolity and he'd been seen looking suitably tired. He'd brushed off, at least so far as America is concerned, his refusal to appear before a British Parliamentary Committee. And he'd had a bit of the news agenda taken away from his own, and Facebook's bad news stream by the shooting at YouTube. And so, on a conference call with media selected by Facebook's PR people, when he began to present what he calls "Hard Questions: Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg on Protecting People’s Information" he was not expecting anything like the BBC's Hard Talk. And so it proved: he set the agenda, questions were soft and answers were nebulous.

Hard Questions: Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg on Protecting People’s Information

It was all terribly American: the transcript called Zuckerberg "Mark" and some of the journalists started with things like "Hey, Mark" and "Thanks for doing this." Let's be clear: Facebook, and Zuckerberg in particular, are on what, by his standards, counts as a charm offensive. He has built an organisation on the simple premise: my house, my rules. But rule number one has always been "you are just a user: we'll do as we want and you can't stop us. And look: we own and have total control over any information you choose to enter into my platform."

But as realisation has dawned across the approximately 2,000 million users of Facebook that what it does with that information is so far outside their comprehension of the possible and ethical, Zuckerberg has seen, for the first time, the reality is that people can, and do, recognise that Facebook is not an essential part of their lives.

This is the man, remember, who only a few weeks ago, said that the cure for loneliness caused by living life primarily on line was to use Facebook more.

So, what happened at Zuckerberg's carefully staged Q&A before a carefully screened audience (albeit on the phone?)

He purportedly tried to do something nice: he dealt with the shooting at YouTube. This is the totality of his comment:

Hey everyone. Thanks for joining today. Before we get started today, I just want to take a moment to talk about what happened at YouTube yesterday.

Silicon Valley is a tight-knit community, and we all have a lot of friends over there at Google and YouTube.

We’re thinking of everyone there and everyone who was affected by the shooting.

Maybe he didn't mean it as it reads: maybe he didn't mean to sound as if his PRs had added that and he'd whined "Oh, do I have to?" But it does. Then he makes his pitch starting

Now I know we face a lot of important questions. So I just want to take a few minutes to talk about that upfront, and then we’ll take about 45 minutes of your questions.

Talk about what? He never mentioned the YouTube event again. Talk about "a lot of important questions"?

He defined what he intended to talk about:

Two of the most basic questions that I think people are asking about Facebook are: first, can we get our systems under control and can we keep people safe, and second, can we make sure that our systems aren’t used to undermine democracy?

Ah, those. Misplaced commas and all, and a worrying lack of clarity in exactly what those "basic" questions are. But no matter because just one sentence later, he was in full "we're a good company made up of good people" mode.

And I’ll talk about both of those for a moment and the actions that we’re taking to make sure the answers are yes. But I want to back up for a moment first.

We’re an idealistic and optimistic company. For the first decade, we really focused on all the good that connecting people brings. And as we rolled Facebook out across the world, people everywhere got a powerful new tool for staying connected, for sharing their opinions, for building businesses. Families have been reconnected, people have gotten married because of these tools. Social movements and marches have been organized, including just in the last couple of weeks. And tens of millions of small business now have better tools to grow that previously only big companies would have had access to."

Note that he intends to speak about those basic questions "for a moment." So, it's already clear that the important stuff is not the real reason for the press conference. That's already pushed back in its box, only to be allowed out in passing.

Then he tried a mea culpa

But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough. We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech, in addition to developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake.

If he'd said "thanks and good night" at that point, it would have been better. But instead he launched into a long-winded statement of what Facebook plans to do i.e. that it has been caught out and now it plans to do what it should have done all along.

Except that it won't. It will do what Zuckerberg and his team think they can do to minimise the reputational damage, to apply window dressing to the central problem of privacy and ownership of information but.. here's the but .. Facebook will continue to allow users' data to be passed to third parties and then Facebook will check if the use is fair.

Take special note of that because it dovetails with what Zuckerberg said before the Congressional Committee a few days later.

How do you know he's not going to prevent users' data being transferred into so-called "apps?" Because he told the reporters that. He also told them that he would not demand that "app" operators delete all Facebook users' data. Why? It must be assumed that Facebook continues to rely on its onerous contract term as to ownership and use of data.

a couple of weeks ago I announced that we were going to do a full investigation of every app that had a large amount of people’s data before we locked down the platform, and that we’d make further changes to restrict the data access that developers could get.

Even then, there's still no attempt to block data transfer.

a number of changes we’re making, including requiring apps you haven’t used in a while to get your authorization again before querying for more of your data. And today we’re following up further and restricting more APIs like Groups and Events. The basic idea here is that you should be able to sign into apps and share your public information easily, but anything that might also share other people’s information — like other posts in groups you’re in or other people going to events that you’re going to — those should be more restricted.

You can read the full pitch, plus the soft questions from journalists, here

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