Facebook has been a firm with its share of troubles lately. Earnings weren’t quite what investors were looking for, its usership base in the U.S. and Canada (its most lucrative markets, revenue-wise) isn’t growing and it’s suffered through a reputational beating over the last year.
And for good reason, Karen Webster noted in a recent commentary – a minority of users managed to turn Facebook into a home and hub for some of the vilest content on the internet.
“Before ‘fake news,’ there were the public beheadings, live shootings, live suicides and bullying – many of which were very viral,” Webster noted. “All of those posts made it through Facebook’s screens and filters, and circulated on its platform for hours, even days, before being taken down. This happened despite sophisticated technology capabilities that successfully flagged many other types of inappropriate postings, like pornography, and kept them off the platform for years.”
But this week, things started to look a bit sizzlier for Facebook – and a bit more like it is trying to turn the page on what has been a difficult year in the life of the firm.
While the 2016 election came with accusations that Facebook was ground zero for fake news and Russian troll tomfoolery, the 2018 election seemed to bring forth a new and far more proactive Facebook when it came to policing political content on the platform.
Ahead of the latest round of elections, the firm reported that it had blocked over 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts with potential ties to a so-called Russian “troll farm” nationwide.
According to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, accounts were blocked after a tip from law enforcement raised concerns that they were linked to the Russian state-backed organization and “engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior, which is banned from our services.”
“Almost all the Facebook pages associated with these accounts appear to be in the French or Russian languages, while the Instagram accounts seem to have mostly been in English — some were focused on celebrities, others political debate,” Gleicher said in a blog post.
Gleicher went on to note that the latest round of bans is a “reminder that these bad actors won’t give up — and why it’s so important we work with the U.S. government and other technology companies to stay ahead.”
Facebook’s invigorated commitment to being vigilant comes as the service is officially shipping out its Portal video chat product to the market this week.
The announcement of the device caused no small amount of raised eyebrows (not to mention some out-and-out eye-rolling), as many, many critics point out that Facebook – the firm that managed to mishandle 87 million users’ worth of data – was probably less than ideally suited to ask consumers to put a device with a camera in their bedroom.
Clearly concerned with the issue as the product officially goes to market this week, Facebook published a blog post detailing how very proactive they plan to be about protecting user data on the new Portal devices. The firm said that it will not view or listen to video calls, and that the calls are encrypted.
Beyond that, Facebook stated that it will treat the calls the way it treats Messenger traffic on the platform: It doesn’t track what users are saying, but does keep a close eye on how often they are using the service, among other things. That data can, and likely will, be used by Facebook for advertising purposes.
“When you make a Portal video call, we process the same device usage information as other Messenger-enabled devices,” Facebook wrote. “This can include volume level, number of bytes received and frame resolution — it can also include the frequency and length of your calls. Some of this information may be used for advertising purposes. For example, we may use the fact that you make lots of video calls to inform some of the ads you see. This information does not include the contents of your Portal video calls.”
The Portal was one of two big launches for Facebook this week. The firm also announced another major retail play: It will be opening pop-up shops within select Macy’s locations across the U.S.
The new shops will feature 100 popular small businesses and digital brands on Facebook and Instagram into retail stores, and will be housed in The Market @ Macy’s.
Launched last February, The Market @ Macy’s is designed to offer brands space on Macy’s first floor to advertise or sell their products while retaining all of their sales, without having to commit to a lease longer than a month. The shops are staffed by Macy’s employees.
“The Market @ Macy’s helps both emerging and established brands reach new audiences by showcasing them in a physical space inside Macy’s. We know the power of connecting businesses with the people who love them most, which is why we’re proud to play a role in expanding the communities of these businesses to in-store shoppers at one of the most beloved retail stores in the world,” Facebook wrote in a press release.
The Facebook pop-ups will be on offer in New York City, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle from now until early February 2019.
So is everything solved and sizzling for Facebook?
Well, it might be a little early for that.
The Portal, despite some initial derision, is actually drawing positive reviews. The sleek design is favored, and many have commented that when compared to the Echo Show, it is in fact easier and far more intuitive to use the device for a video chat.
“I was frankly blown away by how well-designed Portal was. It has one purpose — calling other people who use Facebook — and it does that extremely well. I’ve used other calling devices, like Amazon’s Echo Show, but to me they’ve been more promising than practical,” noted the New York Times reviewer.
All good – and a theme that has shown up in countless other reviews – but unfortunately, there is another theme that is also recurring. And that is how reviewers had really hoped to hate the product, and were annoyed that it is actually kind of perfectly suited for the video chatting task it has taken on.
Because, problematically, they just don’t trust Facebook.
“Wait – not only are you putting a Facebook-connected machine in your house, but its camera will also follow you around the room, like some kind of digital Eye of Sauron?!” The Times review went on.
Facebook put some features in to quell that fear: There is a kill switch built into the hardware that turns off the microphone and camera. There is also a piece of opaque plastic that can slide over to physically sheathe the camera’s eye. But, the reviewers noted, when it comes to Facebook, it is hard to overcome the feeling one is being watched.
And that is also a theme that has come up many times this week: Facebook is trying, and in some cases succeeding. But whether it’s trolls or consumers wanting a camera-enabled Facebook device, it seems the world’s largest social media platform has a long way to go in winning back the full confidence of its user base.
That’s the problem with a massive trust fizzle: It is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of future fizzles.
But Facebook at least got some sizzly starts this week. And if it can deliver for the holiday – and actually get people using the Portal – those sizzly sounds could get louder.
Loan originations done online: Double-digit surges at OnDeck, LendingClub and Square, where the trio posted strong results on loans done online, showed the power of platforms that can take applications 24/7. Square said its capital loans business grew 34 percent year on year, while LendingClub’s loan originations gained 18 percent year on year. Volume gains were 22 percent for OnDeck in the third quarter.
Real-time payments: They got a boost as Citizens Bank announced it is launching the capability for customers to receive real-time payments next year, with the ability to foster real-time payment transactions via commercial online banking platform, application program interface (API) or file transmission.
Printed pages, holiday cheer: A tradition once lost, now found? Amazon appears to be picking up the Sears tradition of the printed holiday catalog, with a mailing slated for millions of customers this month. The title is “A Holiday of Play” and spans 70 pages. QR codes are a new and tech-y wrinkle, as consumers can scan the codes and be taken to the product on the eCommerce giant’s site.
Bank hacks: They seem to be an almost daily occurrence. News earlier in the week showed that almost all banks in Pakistan have been hacked, while HSBC said customer accounts were hacked at its U.S. bank. In the case of the Pakistan breach, the attack came just days after 10 banks in the country had blocked international transactions on cards tied to concerns about breaches of credit and debit card data.
Apple suppliers: Apple is pulling back on its XR production targets, which hits suppliers. The stocks of companies such as Pegatron and Hon Hai slipped mid-single digit percentages. The jury is still out as to whether consumers are shifting their attention to lower-priced phones, especially in emerging markets.
Brand loyalty: A Ping An study of consumer behavior showed that 78 percent of consumers would abandon a brand after a data breach, and as many as 49 percent of consumers would not sign up for or use an online service that had recently reported a data breach.