Is Trust Still Possible? Facebook Distrust and the Surprising Relevance of Faith

Posted by Nathan Betts on April 27, 2018

Years ago the late night comedian Conan O’Brien told a joke in his Year 3000 sketch that went viral. It goes like this: “YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook will merge to form one super time-wasting website called YouTwitFace.”

Well, after watching Mark Zuckerberg defend the credibility of Facebook before Congress, I couldn’t help but think that it is we who are the twits in the recent Facebook struggle. It is clear that Facebook users do not have much trust in the platform they spend their time scrolling on an hourly basis. Recent data provided by the think-tank Ponemon Institute shows that only 27 percent believe that “Facebook is committed to protecting the privacy of my personal information.” If you thought that the catastrophic levels of distrust we are experiencing applied only to political leaders, this revelation tells another story.

We are indeed a very skeptical lot. But what concerns me most are the suggested take-away points from the Facebook conundrum.  First is the impassioned cry from many Facebook users who say that Facebook has an obligation to inform them that their personal information was lost or stolen. I certainly understand the indignation, but there is a critical disconnect here: Facebook, like many other companies, makes its money off of users’ data. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as a free social media platform. Andrew Keen has made the point that “we think we are using Instagram to look at the world, but actually we are the ones who are being watched.” “We”, he writes, “are the free laborers for the data factories.”

But what is perhaps even more surprising is that, as Hannah Kuchler recently pointed out in The Financial Times, even though we know that our privacy is being handled inappropriately the majority of Facebook users say it is unlikely or there is no chance they would even lessen their use of the social network. So there you have it: we are blazingly furious at the social network for manipulating our personal information, but not upset enough to withstand its allure.

Douglas Rushkoff’s landing point in his thoughtful article about Mark Zuckerberg’s  appearance before Congress was that we need to build an alternative platform that promotes its users’ interests instead of everybody else’s. Although I like the optimism of that charge, I wonder if we forget that Mark Zuckerberg began as a user himself. Facebook started out with perhaps ambiguous intentions, but certainly with its users in mind.

Maybe an alternative social network might be just what we need, but I am not sure. Much of the dialogue, concern, and stress about Facebook highlights the distrust, the anger, and the uncertainty that we harbor toward a social platform that promises relational connectivity.

If one were to arrive late to this conversation, they could be forgiven for mistaking this for a religious dialogue. They wouldn’t be far off the mark simply because underlying the anger and uncertainty of how our data is being used by Facebook is a moral complaint; our indignation is inextricably linked to a sense that the privacy breach is categorically wrong. And when we do some digging, we realize that what we deem to be right and wrong are not simply thin-air principles, but a lived out reality of what we believe to be true of the world, about ourselves, and even our belief in a higher power.

This is where faith comes into play. The almost-hidden assumption of moral complaints is that they are appealing to a moral law that governs how we view right and wrong choices. But if there is such a thing as a moral law, we at some point start asking the God question: could there really be a God out there who gives us that moral law?

This is challenging, but also encouraging. Challenging, because many of us don’t want that reality to be true. It is encouraging because it tells us that there actually could be someone worthy of our trust. Instead of giving up on trust altogether, perhaps we should set out to find something or someone truly trustworthy. Maybe, just maybe, it might be worth exploring the idea that there might be a God beyond our moral frustration with Facebook.