How Facebook Dismantled its Own Democratic User Privacy Referendum

Executive Summary

  • Facebook’s approach to PR for dealing with surveillance criticism is to apologize, minimize, and say, “it will do better.”
  • In a cynical move, Facebook dismantled its own faux democratic surveillance referendum.


As Facebook faces a DOJ lawsuit for monopolistic behavior, what will happen is Facebook’s business model will be highlighted to more of a degree than before. Facebook has a long history of lying to users about its surveillance. One of the things it promised to protect user privacy, a user referendum on future privacy changes, is something that Facebook quietly eliminated after receiving the PR boost of announcing the fake item.

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Facebook Dismantles its Own Democratic Privacy Referendum

The user referendum was a PR stunt that Facebook introduced after being caught in multiple lies about surveilling users, both on Facebook and on other sites that Facebook and non-Facebook users visited.

Dina Srinivasan describes how Facebook needed to eliminate the user referendum to roll out its cross-site surveillance code that came as part of a Like button added to media websites.

If Facebook wanted to eventually usurp privacy by using the back-end code from Like buttons or other social plugins, it faced a roadblock—the user referendum process for privacy changes introduced a few years earlier. Thus, while publicly representing that it only used social plugin data for users’ safety and protection and generally deflecting concern over Facebook intentions, Facebook simultaneously dismantled the user voting process.

But Facebook shrugged.

At this point, users had high switching costs and the fine print of the governing documents requiring referendums had a kill switch. In order for a user vote to be binding, 30% of users would have had to vote in the election. With over a billion users, and only some 589,000 votes cast, Facebook discarded the results of the election.152 Facebook then moved forward with privacy erosions and the abolishment of the referendum process.

This is just another example of Facebook lying to users.

The investigative efforts of multiple independent researchers unveiled that the claims Facebook was making to consumers via Facebook’s own policies and the public comments of Facebook executives were false. Facebook itself even conceded their falsity.

Facebook then deflected consumer concern over the discovered hidden activity and false
statements with words and actions that implied the sincerity of Facebook’s commitment to user privacy. For example, when Facebook’s hidden activity and false statements with Beacon were exposed, Facebook retreated and Zuckerberg called Beacon a “mistake.”

Later, when Facebook’s hidden activity and false statements with social plugins were exposed, Facebook claimed that discovered tracking was due to inadvertent software “bugs” or that the tracking was innocuous because it was for users’ own “safety and protection.”

Facebook and the Bugs Excuse

Facebook has used the excuse of “bugs” on multiple occasions. This is Facebook’s goto excuse when it is backed into a corner and has been caught red-handed. Every negative thing that Facebook is caught doing is inadvertent and beyond their control.

At the time, the chief technology officer of Facebook assured, “[social plugins are] not intended for tracking,” rather user data collected was used “to protect the site from cyber-attacks by people who try to break in to users’ accounts.” An evidentiary question is whether this activity was in fact inadvertent and for users’ safety and protection or not.

An investigation into the credibility of Facebook’s alleged reasoning by the German Data Protection Authorities in Schleswig-Holstein found it without merit. If Facebook’s reasoning was factually inaccurate, as the GDPA investigation suggested, then Facebook’s behavior was deceptive.

The list of lies from Facebook goes on and on. Their lies rely upon not performing the research and accepting the false claims by Facebook executives and employees to make the world a more connected place.

Facebook wins our Golden Pinocchio award for its lying around the elimination of its faux user referendum.


Facebook’s user referendum was always a fake program designed for PR. In researching Facebook’s behavior, it has become clear that given Facebook’s history of lying, there is never any reason to believe what Facebook says.

Dina Srinivasan receives our score of 10 out of 10 for accuracy.