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Facebook’s Side Hustles Are Diverting Attention From Its Real Problems, Critics Say

May 20, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC

From calls to break up Facebook to the social network’s A.I. being unable to detect a massacre video (or stop its spread), the company’s infinite scroll of problems seemingly has no end. But as an existential crisis threatens to upend its business model and change the way the social network operates, the company has been busy at work—on pet projects, at least.

On Monday, for instance, Facebook announced a health-related data project that has nothing to do with its ongoing privacy issues, the abuse of Facebook Live to broadcast mass murders, or the looming threat of regulation.

The company was also hit with two new stories that could be a major problem. The first report, from TechCrunch, details how millions of Instagram influencers had their contact information scraped and exposed. Another report, from The Intercept, alleges Facebook offered private data from users to phone makers and carriers in 50 countries.

While those headlines could present a problem, Facebook is hoping its new “social good” project will get some attention. The project focuses on new health maps, some of which use anonymized Facebook data, to help partner health organizations track the spread of disease and respond to health emergencies.

The project was announced on a Monday, a time when stories typically get maximum attention. By comparison, on Friday, May 10, in the late afternoon, Facebook dropped the bombshell news that it had filed a lawsuit against Rankwave, a South Korean company that built Facebook apps and “failed to cooperate with our efforts to verify their compliance with our policies.” In other words, Rankwave is being accused of misusing data, along the same lines as the “thisisyourdigitallife” app that amassed user data and shared it with Cambridge Analytica.

Given the severity and potential implications—and its reveal during what journalists call the “Friday night news dump”—the Rankwave lawsuit didn’t garner much attention. Instead, what got headlines was Facebook’s new birthday stories feature, which had been announced the day before on May 9, along with the gimmick of the social network giving away free cake at certain bakeries the following day, in all 50 states.

That’s right—the same day Facebook announced a lawsuit that could turn into a massive scandal, it was giving away free cake.

This is hardly its first time it has tried to sugar-coat its bad news with sweet new products. Facebook Portal, the company’s biggest foray into hardware, was released late last year, and banked on the premise that people would welcome a video chat speaker into their homes that was made by a company under fire for major privacy violations.

Earlier this month, at F8, the company’s annual developer conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook Dating, an oft-criticized product, considering the company’s current woes, would be expanding to more countries.

Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus at the Annenberg Innovation Lab and author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, says Facebook is “just trying to pretend like it is business as usual, [and] it is not business as usual.” Taplin was not briefed ahead of time on Facebook’s new health project, but says the company has a track record of taking away attention from the issues plaguing its platform.

“They’re basically trying to distract people from the big problem at hand,” he tells Fortune. “They should be focused 100 percent on figuring out how to keep people from broadcasting mass murder on Facebook Live.”

In a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes called on the government to break up Facebook. Hughes, who was Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard, called the company’s power “unprecedented and un-American.”

Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank where Hughes is a senior adviser, said she agrees.

“Not only is it by far the most dominant social media platform, but Facebook owns two of the other biggest social platforms—Instagram and Whatsapp—making it nearly impossible to escape the company, even if a user might want to,” she said. “The amount of private user data that this allows them to capture is unprecedented.”

To its credit, Facebook isn’t deaf to its critics. Laura McGorman, policy lead on Facebook’s Data for Good team, tells Fortune that privacy and platform abuse are “top priorities at the company” but said there’s also a “moral obligation” to continue expanding other projects like the health maps.

“We know that when we share privacy preserving data with the community, it can improve well being and save lives.” she said.

Also, last Wednesday Facebook joined Microsoft, Google, other tech companies and world leaders from countries outside of the United States to sign the “Christchurch Call.” That pact expands a collaborative group of tech companies, government organizations, and non-profits, known as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.

In a newsroom post, Facebook said it would invest in additional technology, including open source tools, and would identify “appropriate checks” for live streamers, such as streamer ratings, account activity, and validation processes.

But critics like Taplin want to see concrete action, not just words.

“At least some countries are recognizing this is an existential moment when something has to change in terms of these platforms and how they are being used to divide us, and to surface the most awful sides of humanity,” he says.

While Facebook is entitled to roll out new products—and is maybe even obligated to, with the growth responsibilities it has to its shareholders—the question is if anyone really wants them. Portal devices is currently are currently on sale for 50% off, and Facebook Dating’s “Secret Crush” feature isn’t making anyone want to trust Facebook to keep the secret of which friend they find most attractive.

That leads to Monday’s announcement of Facebook’s new health maps. The project, while a well-intentioned use of Facebook data, is just the latest example of big tech trying to show it’s giving back to society, while perhaps momentarily causing people to forget about its existential crisis.

“The truth is, we don’t need tech companies to create projects for social good,” says Wong. “We have a government that can, and should, do this for its citizens.”

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