Facebook: The NSA made people distrust us

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during an interview session with The Atlantic at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on September 18, 2013. Jim Watson/AFP

(MoneyWatch) It's the NSA's fault that people distrust Facebook (FB) -- that's essentially what CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with The Atlantic's editor-in-chief, James Bennet. Zuckerberg said Facebook takes measurements of the trust consumers have in his company's brand, as well as in other social media brands like Twitter and Google (GOOG). Those numbers, according to Zuckerberg, dropped significantly when news broke that the National Security Agency was collecting massive amounts of data on citizens and allegedly was collaborating with some large tech companies.

There's a lot of times where ... someone will criticize us in the press over privacy. What we've found is that stuff tends to not actually move the needle that much on the brand perception around trust. The NSA stuff did.

It's an interesting perception, but one that should cause some head scratching. Measuring brand perception is a tricky cross between art and science, and it seems unlikely that such a shift could be linked to one single event, without the inordinate number of privacy issues that have been part of Facebook's public history.

Understanding the impact of brand and particular trends or aspects of what a company does is a difficult undertaking. Results can easily go awry -- there are many ways to get a non-representational audience or write and arrange questions in a way that undermine accuracy. If there were no true brand problem over privacy issues, Facebook would be able to largely ignore any public criticism of its problems.

And yet, time and again, some privacy issue becomes public, turn into a media firestorm, potentially gaining attention from regulators and other government bodies around the world, and Facebook retracts or modifies its initial action. That shows a significant concern over brand damage, no matter what their metrics supposedly say.

Although a calamitous event can skewer a company in the public's view, brand damage generally happens over time. Rather than the NSA issue being the defining moment, more likely it is that, over time, Facebook's moves to reduce privacy and pursue financial gain from user information have created the conditions for distrust, even if the NSA revelations were the initial trigger.

A perfect recent example is the two dating ads that recently ran on Facebook using pictures of a teenager who had committed suicide. Here is the official Facebook statement:

This is an extremely unfortunate example of an advertiser scraping an image from the Internet and using it in their ad campaign. This is a gross violation of our ad policies and we have removed the ad and permanently deleted the advertiser's account. We apologize for any harm this has caused.

And yet, Facebook has found itself in hot water over its attempts to integrate user pictures and identities into ads and sponsored posts. Would such a mix-up have been possible if Facebook had been in charge? Possibly.

Facebook, and others like Google, have, in their quest to boost revenue and please advertisers, created a general atmosphere in which many presume the companies are snooping and using consumers' personal information to commercial ends. The wonder is not that the public could get fed up, but that those in charge of high tech companies could wonder how such a thing might happen.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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