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WhatsApp Won’t Save Facebook

Zuckerberg’s “privacy-focused vision” for social media misses some big problems

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MMark Zuckerberg said last week that the future of Facebook may look a little more like WhatsApp, the private messaging service his company acquired for $19 billion back in 2015.

“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever,” he wrote in a blog post about his “privacy-focused vision for social networking.”

Zuckerberg’s manifesto misses something big: WhatsApp and other private messaging services have, at times, enabled deeply toxic communications.

Not surprisingly, rumors have swirled recently that Facebook might consolidate its messaging platforms — Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram — into one central “platform or protocol,” as CBS News put it. There are risks involved — for people who rely on these messaging services, a centralized outage like the one occurring throughout Facebook’s services this week, could be disastrous. But the move seems otherwise sensible, even responsible, in an era dominated by “fake news” and viral outrage. Shifting emphasis away from a News Feed populated by all of your connections and toward more meaningful, private messaging might allay some of these concerns.

But Zuckerberg’s manifesto misses something big: WhatsApp and other private messaging services have, at times, enabled deeply toxic communications, much as Facebook’s News Feed has. Just this Wednesday, Abhijit Bose, the head of WhatsApp India, said the company was working to “limit viral content and educate users” following a number of fatal incidents there.

Last year, a New York Times investigation found that false rumors being spread via WhatsApp had led to mob killings in India, where the service has 200 million users. Those mob attacks ultimately claimed the lives of two dozen innocent people — though some sources estimate an even higher body count overall from WhatsApp-related murders.

In Indonesia, WhatsApp has been the key purveyor of hoaxes connected to a rise in violence and attacks against religious minorities and LGBT community members. And in Sri Lanka, a sudden surge in attacks on mosques led to WhatsApp being temporarily blocked last year. WhatsApp has promised to address these issues, but the moves made so far — such as limiting message forwards, which keeps people from sending a message to more than five chats at once — are not considered sufficient by local experts.

These issues, coupled with Zuckerberg’s new position that the WhatsApp model represents the future of social networking, suggest a different motivation for the manifesto: It’s good business.

“To what extent is he really drawing to the WeChat playbook here?” Nathan Schneider, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells OneZero. “Is he applying the same copycat logic he’s used with Snapchat or Instagram to simply recognize that Tencent is doing something right by focusing on messaging as the killer app?”

The Chinese company Tencent’s WeChat service represents the kind of mega-social app that Zuckerberg might hope Facebook could become. Incredibly popular in China and increasingly used worldwide — it has more than a billion monthly users, just behind Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger — WeChat bundles many different types of functionality under one umbrella. There are other Asian competitors showing up as bigger blips on Facebook’s radar: LINE, which is especially popular in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand, or South Korea’s Kakao Talk.

Already there are signs that users in the U.S. and other mature markets are shifting away from Facebook and toward seemingly private services like Instagram and WhatsApp. In a sense, Zuckerberg’s writing fills in lines that are already drawn.

“Behavior around Facebook is changing,” Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher and former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, tells OneZero. “People aren’t engaging on the platform as much as they were previously. This move by Facebook allows them to deal with the market shift in how people engage with social media and the move to messaging platforms… as a privacy feature.”

In many ways, Asia’s top chat apps barely resemble WhatsApp. Sure, they have chat functions, but they offer much more. Picture sharing, profiles, in-app games, quizzes, and more opportunities for advertisers to engage users through influencers and sponsored accounts.

WeChat, in particular, takes this to another level thanks to protections from the Chinese government. China guards against foreign competition by blocking Facebook, LINE, and Kakao with the so-called Great Firewall, which has allowed WeChat to offer dozens of features, including payments through the WePay service, an integrated gaming platform and a Facebook-like feed.

In the end, Zuckerberg’s vision might be aimed less at general users, many of whom don’t care or know much about encryption to begin with, than at regulators.

It’s not hard to imagine a future Facebook mega-app, perhaps technically spread across WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger, that would rival this service — especially with Facebook’s investments in original content, virtual reality, and the recent launch of its Patreon-like “Fan Subscriptions” service, which allows people to pay to access exclusive content from creators.

“Most of the concerns are not about Facebook reading our messages, but much more around the largest data ecosystem that Facebook is part of,” says Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society. “It’s a question about what they know about us as individuals, and their ability to target us or use that data about us in a way that could affect us.”

In the end, Zuckerberg’s vision might be aimed less at general users, many of whom don’t care or know much about encryption to begin with, than at regulators. It’s telling that Zuckerberg’s blog post is only available in English. The intended audience is not those users in Indonesia, India, or Sri Lanka: It’s officials in Washington, D.C., and, potentially, Sacramento, where state legislators are considering amendments (opposed by Facebook) that would strengthen California’s landmark 2018 digital privacy law. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up Facebook and other tech giants would force the company to make social networking and messaging separate entities.

What seems like “vision,” then, is more of a defensive posture for a company under assault by competition and regulators.

“It allows them to deal with market shift towards messaging platforms, regulatory criticism about their privacy practices, and simultaneously combine multiple services,” says Soltani. “In an environment with growing scrutiny about anticompetitive practices, this also allows them to do it as a privacy feature.”

Of course, Facebook has successfully transformed itself before. Remember when Snapchat was the only service with “Stories”? You might — but many of the 1 billion people who use Instagram probably don’t, if they even care at all.

Global journalist covering politics, environment, human rights & the social impacts of tech for OneZero, Gizmodo, The Nation and more

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