This is becoming a bit of a tradition: me writing about people who make a New Year’s resolution to quit Facebook. The story is simple: around the turn of the year, there’s a peak in people googling how to quit smoking, but there’s an even larger peak in people trying to figure out how to delete their Facebook account.
But this year, the story is a bit more complicated (and more interesting).
Google Trends data isn’t available yet for the last days of the year, so there’s no new peak in searches for “quit smoking” yet. Other than that, the yearly pattern is dwarfed by a huge peak in search volume for “delete Facebook” in the week starting on 18 March. What happened?
The Guardian has helpfully created an overview of Facebook-related incidents during 2018; I’ve added a few stories that also seemed relevant (for sources, see Method below; thanks to Vicki Boykis for the suggestion to annotate the Google Trends chart).
No surprise: the largest peak in “delete Facebook” searches happened a few days after the publication of the Cambridge Analytica story on 17 March. The news resulted in a veritable #deletefacebook campaign, although according to Mark Zuckerberg, «I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on that.»
Arwa Mahdawi has argued that deleting your Facebook account isn’t a bad New Year’s resolution, even though it probably won’t change how the company operates: «Facebook’s abuse of power isn’t a problem that we can solve as individuals. Technology giants must be regulated.»
So how much impact did the controversy have on Facebook? One way to try and answer this is to look at the share price.
The pattern for Facebook is rather interesting. The share price dropped after the publication of the Cambridge Analytica story, but quickly picked up again. But then it took a plunge on 25 July, resulting in ‘the biggest-ever one-day wipeout in U.S. stockmarket history’.
One possible interpretation is that investors initially thought the Cambridge Analytica story wasn’t going to harm Facebook’s profits. But when Facebook published its Q2 earnings report, they were shocked to learn that user growth had stalled.
But the chart also shows that all major tech companies saw their share prices go down. This suggests there’s more going on than users leaving Facebook. In addition to broader economic trends, a likely explanation is that investors fear more government regulation of major tech companies in response to the controversies they are involved in (and also to their dominant market position). While this may not be the whole story, it does seem to support Mahdawi’s view about the key role of regulation.
Note that Google Trends data should be interpreted with caution because Google doesn’t provide much detail on the methodology used to produce the data.
For periods longer than three months, only weekly data can be downloaded. For the 2018 chart I wanted daily data. As suggested here, I downloaded three-month batches with overlapping data and then used the overlapping dates to calculate a ratio to adjust the scales. Here’s the code:
import pandas as pd
import numpy as np
def stitch(df1, df2):
df1.index = df1.date
df2.index = df2.date
overlapping = [d for d in df1.date if d in list(df2.date)]
ratios = [df1.loc[d, 'delete facebook'] /
df2.loc[d, 'delete facebook']
for d in overlapping]
ratio = np.median(ratios)
for var in ['delete facebook', 'quit smoking']:
df2[var] *= ratio
df = pd.concat([df1, df2[~df2.date.isin(overlapping)]])
df = dfs
for df2 in dfs[1:]:
df = stitch(df, df2)
I used this Guardian article as my main source on Facebook-related incidents in 2018. I added a few from other sources: in April, Facebook announced 87 million people had been affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Subsequently, it announced that it would notify people who had been affected. Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach organised a Bye Bye Facebook event (reminiscent of the 2015 Facebook Farewell Party). In September, Pew found that one in four Americans had deleted the Facebook app from their phone; and later that month a Chinese hacker threatened to delete Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook account.