These lines jumped out at me from CNN reporter Dylan Byers’s “Pacific” email newsletter, focused on tech and innovation, in the edition sent out the night before Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day round of grilling in D.C. on Tuesday and Wednesday: “What everyone is wondering but isn’t saying: Will Zuckerberg sweat? The Facebook CEO has a well-known history of sweating profusely when he’s under the spotlight, which adds to the perception that he’s nervous or has something to hide.”
We’ve gone from Russians to important, weighty questions about privacy to third-party vendors hoovering up millions of peoples’ data to wondering whether Facebook’s CEO might visibly perspire in front of a TV camera. It’s the same thing that happened with the election and really anything involving a big media story in recent memory — at some point, the MacGuffin nudges everybody out to the periphery, which is of course an easier and less cerebral place to be.
This is what I’m talking about. Watch the news coverage that comes out in the aftermath of Facebook’s embattled chief executive appearing before lawmakers. There will be stories about The Story. But there will also be an awful lot more stories about all the things around the story that actually aren’t The Story. About one senator’s particular zinger. About Mark’s stone-faced reactions. Talking heads debating whether he was appropriately contrite, going back over soundbites. About what happens next, Facebook’s stock price, more stories about whether Mark should resign.
Go into a mall, restaurant, airport, a public place almost anywhere and you will still see people still mindlessly scrolling their Facebook feeds. It’s why I’m betting it’s likelier than not there won’t be much in the way of substantive change at Facebook from the outside once all this sound and fury dissipates.
Facebook is today’s U.S. media MacGuffin, like the case in “Pulp Fiction,” the thing you don’t see or can’t get at it but that drives the plot forward.
Facebook itself, of course, is ostensibly what the nonstop media coverage has been about post-Cambridge Analytica, even though the thing we’re all talking about this week is Mark. And all the other negative Facebook storylines we’re throwing into the blender while we’re at it — unsendable messages, Myanmar, Woz is leaving, a fake Black Lives Matter page — that are all relevant right now because, well, they’re about Facebook and they’re all negative.
Never mind that many of them are stories that just dance around the story. And part of this is your fault.
Who made you sign up for an account, right there on that page where it promises Facebook is free and always will be? Did you give up your individual agency to do that? Or did you give up your agency at some point after that, and now you want Congress to do something about this platform that an outsider can co-opt, using data you freely gave that platform to target you with ads that are somehow able to Jedi mind-trick you into voting for someone you wouldn’t otherwise have voted for?
“I think in an odd way this stems from some of the heat of the political campaign and the aftermath,” says Scott Relf, CEO and co-founder of photo sharing app PikMobile. “Where there was a lot of concern around were foreign governments somehow influencing the election. And between the news cycle and political cycle, there was a whole lot of gasoline poured on that fire.”
Facebook is now going to be a multi-year story, he continues. And it’s partly because it’s easier to just jam a bunch of slightly related storylines into one Frankenstein of a news cycle. When we ought to be talking about terms of service and how privacy ought to work with a service like Facebook and ad-supported business models on the Internet and how consumer data can be kept safer.
But we won’t. None of this is to absolve a company like Facebook for violations of user trust and being cavalier with user data, personal information, private conversations and the like. It’s just that at some point, we’ve got to stop contenting ourselves with looking for boogeymen around whose neck we can hang everything that’s wrong with the world. We’d go a much longer way toward getting to the bottom of what happened in November 2016, what ought to be done about Facebook, and a lot more, if we ignore the way the news frames everything and instead just take a hard, honest look at me and you.