Today, Mark Zuckerberg took a phone call with the press to answer lingering questions about its most recent controversies. The Facebook founder and CEO admitted that the company messed up: “We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is,” he said.
While describing this broad view, he also defended Facebook and the actions it took to combat bad actors like Cambridge Analytica. At the heart of this issue is Facebook’s business model: The social network makes money because it offers a platform for advertisers to target people based on the troves of data that users surrender to it. When boiled down, Facebook’s monetization mechanics aren’t that hard to understand.
And yet, when Zuckerberg was questioned about the company’s handling of user data and how it essentially handed it off to third parties, he demurred. “For some reason, we haven’t been able to kick this notion, for years, that people think that we sell data to advertisers,” said Zuckerberg. “We don’t.”
This is a common response from Zuckerberg when he’s asked about Facebook’s business model, but it’s disingenuous. Think about the sleight of hand behind the expression, “We don’t sell your data.” While it’s true that marketers can’t hand to Zuck a fist full of cash in exchange for a USB drive of user preferences, what marketers can do is use Facebook’s endless stock of data to deploy some of the best and most targeted advertising the world has ever seen.
Which is to say, Facebook doesn’t sell the user information individually, but it provides a platform that makes the data in aggregate even more powerful. This lets the social network say it doesn’t sell this user information, while letting advertisers run campaigns based on preference. Zuckerberg continually dodges taking responsibility for its ad platform, because its entire business model is predicated on having users hand over their information for free, only to have it positioned against businesses.
In that sense, Zuckerberg saying Facebook doesn’t sell data is like an energy company claiming it doesn’t sell coal. The individual words may be true, but the sentence is obscuring a greater truth.