Facebook: Connecting People – Breaking Democracy?

Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook back in 2004 as a networking platform for fellow Harvard University students. Its predecessor ‘facemash.com’ encountered a lot of resistance as it was orientated around assessing the attractiveness of (female) students. Facebook however spread rapidly among other Ivy League universities and soon after around the world. This growth continues, with almost a third of the world’s population – that is more than half of all internet users – using the platform every month. Its motto: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” So far so good?

Facebook has enjoyed continuous, almost exponential growth in sales and profifits over the past ten years. Its business model is no big secret and yet it came under public scrutiny repeatedly. Facebook is an advertising company as well as a tech company. Its share of the total global online advertising market was almost 20% in 2017, and this trend is also rising sharply.

Advertising is Facebook’s sole source of income, allowing its services to be free for users. The success of Facebook’s marketing strategy is often attributed to microtargeting – a marketing strategy that makes use of a wide variety of data to create detailed profifiles of Facebook users in order to present them custom-fifit advertisements. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 (for $1 billion) and WhatsApp in 2014 (for $19 billion) has not only given the corporation new platforms for advertising but also for datageneration. It now owns a data empire that puts it amongst the ranks of Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, making it one of the ‘Big 5’, one of the most profifitable companies in the world. Data has become “the oil of the twenty first century”.

Crisis and Criticism

The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed to which extent data is collected and how this poses risks not only to individuals’ freedom and privacy but also to democracy. For years, the Cambridge Analytica group used a security hole in Facebook´s system, collecting users’ data and micro- targeting them with election advertising. In the 2016 US election campaign, data from 87 million Facebook users (a sixth of the US population) was collected and used to create detailed ‘psychometric’ profifiles. These profifiles included not only gender, age, place of residence, and job, but also political attitude, consumer behaviour and, most importantly, emotional behaviour patterns. Cambridge Analytica focussed on so-called ‘persuadables’ and targeted them with specifific adverts on Facebook. These adverts often contained incorrect information (fake news), for example regarding refugees or Trump’s competitor Hillary Clinton. In this regard it seems an unlikely coincidence that the head of the right-wing Breitbart News portal Steve Bannon, and the right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, both helped in growing Cambridge Analytica. When Trump narrowly won the election, Cambridge Analytica celebrated the success as though it were their own. These mechanisms used by Cambridge Analytica to inflfluence elections are revealed to alarming effect in the Netflflix documentary “The Great Hack” (2019).

The Brexit referendum like the 2016 US election was a close call. Cambridge Analytica also played a hand here, working for the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. This topic is still present in the media: Since January 2020 the twitter account #Hindsightis2020 has published over a hundred thousand previously unseen documents, leaked by former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser. The documents show that the company was active in 68 countries. Cambridge Analytica has since collapsed, but the problem of unethical data manipulation remains: the successor companies SCL Group and Emerdata employ almost exactly the same people in the same industries. Mark Zuckerberg may have made a public apology to the EU Parliament in 2018, but there has been little real change. Facebook still allows political advertising on its platforms and defends misinformation campaigns as freedom of expression. Facebook responded to criticism about its use of data with an image campaign that attempted to shift focus onto the issue of privacy. In an interview with the Sueddeutsche newspaper in January 2020, Facebook’s head of Communications Nick Clegg however admitted “We [Facebook] have to be regulated”. US Democrat candidate Elizabeth Warren went even further, demanding the company to be dismantled as it endangers democracy and concentrates too much power in the hands of too few. Facebook’s competitors Twitter and Google have now banned political adverts related to US elections. Will Facebook follow suit, risking losing its best customers? We’ll have to wait and see.

Sixteen years after its launch, Facebook has certainly succeeded in revolutionising digital communications. Now the focus is on its worrying potential to initiate social crises. Perhaps it’s time to reflect again on the company’s mission statement; is Facebook really “Connecting people”?


  • Sales- and profifit devolopments since 2007 https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/217061/umfrage/umsatzgewinn-von-facebook-weltweit/ Anteilan
  • Online-Advertising market https://infographic.statista.com/normal/chartoftheday_13348_facebook_share_of_global_online_ad_revenue_n.jpg
  • Number of Facebook Users https://infographic.statista.com/normal/chartoftheday_10047_facebooks_monthly_active_users_n.jpg Nick Interview
    with Clegg: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/digital/facebook-nick-clegg-1.4765570?reduced=true

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