Last week – April 25 – Facebook posted the 2018 first-quarter data on revenues and users (here the original post from Facebook.) The perhaps unexpected take-home message is that, in spite of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, everything seems to go well with the social media. In particular, monthly users continued to grow at the expected rate (see the graph below – original here).
Noticeably, the growth is not only due to the expansion of the social media in countries were its reach is still limited. It appears that even in countries where Facebook is widespread and that were directly touched by the data scandal – especially US – there was not any effect. In fact, in the US and Canada, the number of daily active users was higher in the first three months of 2018 than in the previous trimester.
It may certainly be that there was not enough time for seeing an effect – the breach was reported by the Guardian and the New York Times on March 17th, leaving only two weeks for users to react to it – and we may have better estimates in July, when Facebook will give the data for the second quarter. However, the suggestion is that, at least, the scandal and the subsequent events, including the #deleteFacebook hashtag trending on Twitter, or personalities such as the co-founder of WhatsApp or Elon Musk explicitly expressing their discontent, did not generate an immediate exodus from the social media.
Why then do people not react to the Cambridge Analytica scandal? This seems to be an interesting question. Of course, there is no shortage of the “Facebook is addictive” kind of answers. Even not considering these extreme opinions, however, it seems that the majority of explanations concern the fact that leaving Facebook is difficult, because it is too embedded in our digital life (so, in our life tout court), perhaps because we would not be able to contact anymore our friends or coworkers, or access to particular applications and so on. Or, anyway, even if we would leave, they will still have access to our data, directly, or through the activity of our friends.
In sum, the idea is that we would like to, but we can not. However, I have plenty of friends that are not on Facebook and have a very normal life, and others (probably the majority) that are on Facebook, but are scarcely active and do not seem to care. Perhaps one should also consider that people are not controlled by Facebook but decide for themselves what to do. Perhaps many people just decided that they are not too concerned about the usage of their data for “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool” – in the words of Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower – and that the net advantage of using Facebook is higher. Irrespective of whether this is right or wrong, we may at least recognise that we can decide autonomously what to do, and that it is at least possible that our decisions are aligned with our interests.
Another, different, possibility, is that we are simply relatively resistant to any kind of social influence that does not have very tangible costs and advantages – in fact, resistant to any kind of change. The good thing about this possibility is that it works for the scarce impact of #deleteFacebook and Elon Musk, but also for the political impact of fake news, Russian bots and the like. This may not be very welcome by many academics studying social media, or more generally social influence, but it looks like an interesting option to me, after months (years?) of thinking about the effects of the Internet on human culture.