Sheryl Sandberg says Ireland has a special relationship with Facebook. And we do. Last week's visit by the social media giant's chief operating officer reinforced this with the announcement of 1,000 new jobs in 2019 and an investment of €1 million in online safety programmes run by the National Anti-Bullying Centre and SpunOut.ie.
We have housed Facebook’s international headquarters for the past decade and their Irish operation is the largest outside of Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California. Sandberg herself says they had Dublin in mind early on when they were deciding upon a European presence.
But Sandberg’s visit last week was also part of a wider European tour of sorts designed to reassure Facebook users that the platform is doing its best to fix past wrongs. Her keynote speech to small business owners attending Facebook’s “Gather” conference at Croke Park echoed previous interviews. Sandberg is driving home the message that the social networking company knows it has done wrong and is working hard to make the platform a safer place, both in terms of tackling misinformation and fake news, and in terms of keeping users’ personal information private.
“Facebook has been having a hard time this past few years and that’s because we need to do a better job keeping people safe on our platform,” Sandberg acknowledged.
“When we were building Facebook, we were so focused on the good the platform can do that we did not do enough to anticipate that, when you connect this many people around the world, there are real risks. We are not the same company we were even a few years ago and this is something we need to prove.
“We won’t earn people’s trust with words alone but with the actions we take to prevent harm,” she said before adding that Facebook had ramped up investment in safety and security, with more than 30,000 people now working in these areas – over three times the number just one year ago.
As I watch her deliver the keynote, I’m struck by how sincere she seems. And meeting her in the flesh gives you a sense of Sandberg being a combination of power, confidence, lack of pretentiousness and warmth.
The thing is we have heard this “from-the-heart” speech before and it is a well-rehearsed defence designed to curb Facebook backlash.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this – all companies do it. But Facebook is a singularly powerful and influential tech company that has become intertwined with the lives of many: with 2.2 billion users it remains the most used social networking site globally. Facebook has been acknowledged for playing a part in the shaping of modern democracy – for good and bad.
On the one hand, it became a platform for the distribution of fake news during the 2016 US presidential election and has been used to incite violence in Myanmar. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that it is where millions now get their political news and express their civic identity. To ditch Facebook, says Jakob Ohme, assistant professor at the Centre for Journalism, University of Southern Denmark, we could be "potentially creating a political information vacuum that we don't know how to fill".
And Facebook is making sure it is being seen to do the right thing. Aside from implementing technology to detect and remove purveyors of fake news and pulling down one million fake accounts per day, it commissioned an independent human rights impact assessment on its role in the social and political environment in Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Alex Warofka, product policy manager, said Facebook agreed with the report's finding: "We weren't doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence. We agree that we can and should do more."
Steep learning curve
It has been a steep learning curve for both Sandberg and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. As New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos said upon spending the summer of 2018 interviewing Zuckerberg: "I think, if you'd asked him [about Facebook's responsibility in October of 2016, right before the election, he would have said, 'look, it's up to national governments to protect their own institutions and protect their democracy'.
"He's come to recognise that there is a unique responsibility that comes with having a platform that is larger than any country on Earth," Osnos told NPR podcast All Tech Considered. This responsibility, it seems, has been handed over to Sandberg, who has been apologising a lot lately.
Sandberg has been saying Facebook needs to do better to regain users’ trust. The platform has been taking steps to ensure “the safety and security of Facebook’s users; the commitment to cracking down on fake accounts and false news; strengthening defences against election interference; and being even more transparent in how it operates and makes decisions, to make itself more publicly accountable”.
We’re in a unique position here in Ireland to reflect upon this public accountability. The clichés don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and beware of Greeks bearing gifts both come to mind: we undoubtedly benefit from Facebook’s presence and are set to benefit even more with 5,000 residents employed by the company by year end.
But we also are in a position to regulate Facebook and ensure that it is compliant with GDPR.
Following her appearance at Gather, Sandberg met the Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, whose office has several ongoing investigations into Facebook security breaches, including Facebook's largest data breach to date in September 2018, which affected at least 30 million user accounts. The commissioner's office did not want to comment on the specifics of the investigation, telling The Irish Times only that "our investigation into Facebook is still ongoing".
Meanwhile, the company Facebook is looking to rebuild trust among users in Ireland and across Europe. The biggest component in these 1,000 new jobs will be across the content policy and moderation team, which is now the largest team at Facebook Ireland, surpassing sales or engineering.
"It is the largest team by far and is responsible for integrity and safety of the platform. All of our content policy and moderation people – both our internal, full-time Facebook employees and contractors through vendors – they are all employed, hired and trained here in Ireland," explained Gareth Lambe, head of Facebook Ireland.
I ask Lambe about the current wave of “techlash”, specifically that aimed at Facebook. How can the social networking site regain users’ trust after a couple of years of major issues around not just security breaches but content moderation, transparency in advertising, and what happens to user data?
“We are in a new environment now. Five years ago, people just loved the social experience and they wanted opportunities to connect with friends, share birthdays and playlists, but I think now people are a lot more aware of the potential dangers of that,” explained Lambe.
“[Facebook has] our role in this, with the Cambridge Analytica controversy, so we have a big job to do rebuild trust.
“But part of that building of trust is also educating people about how the internet and online advertising works. That’s the job of us, other platforms, governments and people themselves, but we need to get better at explaining that and using our own tools to show it.”
Lambe says that, while individuals do have a responsibility to learn more about how online advertising works, ultimately, for Facebook: “We need to make it easier and transparent. We need to give them controls and opportunities to learn about it and to control their own information. That’s on us to do that.
“We know that, when people understand how internet advertising works, they’re much more comfortable with it. It’s when people don’t understand that they are most concerned.”
This promise of more transparency, along with tools and opportunities for users to control their data, was echoed by Sandberg in her Dublin keynote and it will become more important than ever following Zuckerberg's announcement of plans to merge Facebook Messenger with Instagram and WhatsApp at the backend.
In a rollback on promises to keep the messaging platforms separate, this may mean an upgrade in encryption for Messenger or it could mean a downgrade for WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption, something users could not have foreseen as the app was acquired by Facebook with a promise by co-founder Brian Acton that the platform would remain free, secure and unburdened by ads.
Zuckerberg has apparently instructed that all three services offer end-to-end encryption; only time will tell.
Ultimately, Lambe is correct. Facebook does need to keep working on transparency and users have some responsibility in educating themselves about online advertising. Clear and simple (and concise) terms and conditions in this area would help. Plain English is all too often lacking in this area.
As with Google and other online services, this is a for-profit company providing an advertising-supplemented service in an evolving digital environment that does not guarantee what we see is what we get. It is easy to see the tangible – 1,000 new jobs and €1 million invested in online safety – but not so easy to see the cogs and wheels turning beneath a behemoth data conversion platform that we also happen to use to talk to friends.