Facebook has been in the news for allowing a Donald Trump ad that makes untrue statements: essentially lies. They have been defending this by claiming (i) protection of “free speech” and (ii) that politicians are already fact-checked.
This obviously has big risks for Facebook. Users could revolt and leave the platform, regulators could crack down and fine them, and the growing chorus of politicians who want to break them up could get even bigger and louder. And most importantly, advertisers (Facebook’s true customers) could spend their advertising dollars elsewhere if they feel pressure from their customers.
Facebook has enormous power due to its network effect, but it is not invincible. All companies, like all species, go extinct at some point. As CNBC reports, A Washington University study found that 40% of the Fortune 500 will no longer exist in just 10 years.
Species fail when they cannot adapt to their changing environment. And the same is true for companies. Customers “fire” current products and “hire” a new one, when a new product enters the market (the “environment”) that gets the customer’s job done faster and more accurately. Think of Blackberry, Britannica and Kodak—once dominant companies that failed when competitors (Apple, Google, and Facebook) stole their customers and their market share.
Facebook might be successful in the short-term allowing lies in its ads. A fascinating look at why this is can be found in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine. She argues that memes are a second replicator like genes. Genes are replicators and they have created all species (see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene).
“Genes are instructions for making proteins stored in the cells of the body and passed on in reproduction.... Memes are instructions for carrying out behavior stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by imitation.” Memes are replicators that have created human minds. But memes don’t have to be true to spread rapidly and widely. So Donald Trump can be successful buying ads that get liked and shared on Facebook because a meme’s ability to spread (e.g. “Joe and Hunter Biden are corrupt”) is not dependent on how true it is.
So Facebook can make money selling lies. It is that simple. But should they?
Companies that shortcut their customer’s jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) ultimately will face consequences. The CEO of Wells Fargo was forced to resign because they shortcut their customers jobs by fraudulently charging them fees for accounts they didn’t want. Wells Fargo should have focused on getting consumers finance JTBDs done better. Instead, they took a shortcut to profits through fraud.
Facebook is shortcutting their users’ and advertisers’ jobs-to-be-done by selling lies. Facebook uses "Free Speech" to defend keeping lies on its platform. But more important than the legal question, is whether or not lies on its platform serves its users.
The jobs-to-be-done that Facebook’s users are “hiring” the platform to do include sharing memories and staying connected with friends. But they also include staying informed about current events and determine how to vote to help their lives. According to the Pew Research Center, about four-in-ten Americans (43%) get news on Facebook.
So how can Facebook avoid selling lies?
It can keep and satisfy its users (consumers) by actually helping them stay informed with the truth so that they can make better decisions in their lives. Over time, products will emerge to get the consumers’ jobs done better. This is why Facebook grew rapidly. Facebook, combined with mobile phones with cameras, replaced film and destroyed Kodak because the internet is a faster and more accurate way to share memories (which is a consumer JTBD).
Either Facebook will continue improving how it helps consumers stay informed and make decisions about their lives (another consumer JTBD) or another company will do it faster and more accurately and replace Facebook. Through this lens, it's clear that lies are an existential threat to Facebook. In the short term, lies (fake memes) can spread rapidly and generate profits via advertising, but in the long term any product that fails to get the consumer’s job done will go extinct.
No one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can beat evolution.
Facebook’s advertisers, of course, are their true customers (they generate their revenue) and advertisers are “hiring” Facebook to acquire new customers (the advertisers’ job-to-be-done). If consumers no longer use Facebook because lies don’t help them with their jobs, then advertisers will be less successful acquiring customers on Facebook and will leave the platform as well.
This type of downward spiral can happen very rapidly for a company, so the threat to Facebook, is very real. In 2007, Blackberry’s market cap ($80 billion) was 4x larger than Apple’s when the iPhone launched. It is now effectively zero. This can happen to Facebook, and it might all start with little lies.