After five days of silence, Mark Zuckerberg finally acknowledged the massive data compromise that allowed Cambridge Analytica to obtain extensive psychographic information about 50 million Facebook users. His statement, which acknowledged that Facebook had made mistakes in responding to the situation, wasn’t much of an apology—Zuckerberg and Facebook have repeatedly demonstrated they seem to have a hard time saying they’re sorry.
For me, Zuckerberg’s statement fell short in a very specific way: He’s treating the Cambridge Analytica breach as a bad-actor problem when it’s actually a known bug.
In the 17-months-long conversation Americans have been having about social media’s effects on democracy, two distinct sets of problems have emerged. The ones getting the most attention are bad-actor problems—where someone breaks the rules and manipulates a social-media system for their own nefarious ends. Macedonian teenagers create sensational and false content to profit from online ad sales. Disinformation experts plan rallies and counterrallies, calling Americans into the streets to scream at each other. Botnets amplify posts and hashtags, building the appearance of momentum behind online campaigns like #releasethememo. Such problems are the charismatic megafauna of social-media dysfunction. They’re fascinating to watch and fun to study—who wouldn’t be intrigued by the team of Russians in St. Petersburg who pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists and anti-Clinton fanatics in order to add chaos to the presidential election in the United States? Charismatic megafauna may be the things that attract all the attention—when really there are smaller organisms, some invisible to the naked eye, that can dramatically shift the health of an entire ecosystem.