Facebook asks users if it is 'good for the world' as trust wanes

Is Facebook good for the world? That's what the world's biggest social network is asking some users in a snap poll this week as the company faces its biggest crisis to date.

Timing of poll raises questions as company faces mounting pressure from regulators, advertisers, investors

Facebook has rolled out a poll to some users about whether they think the social media network is 'good for the world.' The company revealed on Wednesday that the data of up to 87 million users may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica — significantly higher than the 50 million that was originally reported. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Is Facebook good for the world?

That's what the world's biggest social network is asking some users in a snap poll this week as the company faces its biggest crisis to date.

When some Facebook users log into their accounts, a poll appears under the heading "We'd like to do better" with a statement that says "Please agree or disagree with the following statement: Facebook is good for the world."

The reply options range from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."

I think this is part of their PR campaign ahead of Zuckerberg appearing before [U.S.] Congress.- Daniel Ives, GBH  Insights

While Facebook has asked users for feedback before, the timing of the poll raises questions as the company faces mounting pressure from regulators, advertisers and investors over its recent data privacy scandal.

Facebook spokesperson Lisa Stratton told CBC News that the company has been doing these surveys since 2015 and this specific question is not new.

"Like any other company that surveys its users, the information from these surveys helps us hear people's feedback in order to improve their experience on Facebook," she said.

But the poll comes as the tech giant revealed on Wednesday that the data of up to 87 million users may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica — significantly higher than the 50 million originally reported.

The London-based political research firm used the data to build psychological profiles that could help its clients — including Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign — better target their ads.

PR campaign?

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he wants to make sure the social network is a force for good, one market researcher says the timing of the poll is no coincidence.

"I think this is part of their PR campaign ahead of Zuckerberg appearing before [U.S.] Congress next week to try to show the public that the user community of Facebook are still strong supporters of the platform," said Daniel Ives, of GBH  Insights.

Ives says Facebook and Zuckerberg are in a major period of "hand-holding."

"The stock is down 15 per cent-plus since this broke, and we believe Facebook could be stuck in the mud over the next two to three months as it further navigates its biggest crisis since becoming a company 14 years ago," he said.

The tech giant has lost more than $80 billion US in market value since March 16, when news broke about the use of its data by Cambridge Analytica.

Justin Hendrix, executive director at NYC Media Lab, said Facebook executives have been paying close attention to their poll numbers and want to know "how badly its reputation has been dinged."

Facebook is trying to assess "whether its utopian aim of uniting the world's population has been overshadowed by the minutiae of its controversies," said Daniel Bader, managing editor of website Android Central.

'Difficult questions'

Criticism over how the social media company has handled the fallout from the data scandal was evident during a conference call that Zuckerberg held with reporters on Wednesday after he confirmed that 37 million additional user profiles were improperly accessed.

"We didn't take a broad enough view of what our responsibility was," Zuckerberg said. "And that was a huge mistake. That was my mistake."

Zuckerberg was even questioned over whether he was still the most appropriate person to lead Facebook.

Facebook ran ads apologizing for the Cambridge Analytica scandal in multiple U.S. and British newspapers, including the New York Times, on March 25. (Jenny Kane/Associated Press)

The company founder maintained that he was, adding, "Life is about learning from mistakes and working out what you need to do to move forward."

Hendrix said Zuckerberg will likely need to testify to the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions so lawmakers can understand how to best regulate social media companies.

"I hope congressional leaders will be prepared to ask some difficult questions. In general, we need to understand whether Mark Zuckerberg understands the costs and dangers of making the world more connected, and whether his company is prepared to protect its users," said Hendrix.

Facing regulations

Meanwhile, Ives, of GBH Insights, said regulation was the worst thing that could happen to Facebook.

"There's definitely going to be some regulation. If it's slight to modest, then the Facebook model could absorb it, but if it's moderate to significant heavy-handed regulation, that could potentially change its business model," he said.

"That's why this is a fork-in-the-road situation, and the risk profile has definitely increased for Facebook. Their backs are against the wall."

Last month, during an interview on CNN, Zuckerberg suggested that he was open to regulation, but then quickly added that he would be looking for the "right" kind of rules. 

Bader said he expects Zuckerberg's answers to Congress next week to be "extremely carefully scripted" as he emphasizes Facebook's universal mission to connect the world.

"Facebook is foremost a business and must balance the needs of advertisers with those of its users," he said. "While many of the user-facing privacy improvements have been a long time coming, the sheer size of Facebook and the nebulous ways bad actors take advantage of that scale to manipulate people means that the company may never regain the trust of its users."

While Facebook has released the findings of user polls in the past, experts were split over whether it would release the outcome of the current survey.

"I think transparency is something that they need to increase rather than decrease," said Ives.

With files from The Associated Press

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.