Facebook has announced that it will be opening pop-up Facebook Cafés across the United Kingdom, in an apparent bid to improve its image in the wake of numerous privacy scandals.

The Facebook Café will launch in London on 28 August at the Attendant coffee bar in Shoreditch, before moving to four different locations across the UK up until 5 September.

Visitors will be encouraged to have a “privacy check-up” in exchange for a drink from a select menu. These check-ups will teach users how to customise their Facebook settings, such as the information that is publicly available, and the apps that are allowed access to their account and data.

Facebook Café attempts to address privacy failings

The company says that the Facebook Café is a response to a recent poll, which found that 27% of London’s residents don’t know how to change their privacy settings on social media.

However, it also comes in the wake of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decision to hand Facebook a record-breaking $5bn fine over its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the data of millions of Facebook users harvested and used to target voters ahead of political campaigns. And more recently, the news that Facebook has been paying contractors to listen to and transcribe audio messages sent by its users through its Messenger app.

In between those two incidents were two others: one that led to 50 million accounts being compromised, and another that potentially exposed the passwords of 200 million to 600 million user accounts. The first, discovered in September 2018, was a result of attackers exploiting a vulnerability in the platform’s “View As” feature. The second, discovered in March 2019, was a result of a passwords being stored in plain text, accessible by Facebook employees.

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According to a poll conducted by NBC, some 60% of Americans no longer trust Facebook with their personal data.

That figure is even higher in the technology industry, according to a recent survey by anonymous workplace chat app Blind, which found that 89% of tech workers do not trust Facebook with their data. According to the same survey, even one in four of the company’s own employees feel that way.

Facebook Café glosses over the platform’s privacy issues

Nancy Elgadi, digital director for Right Angles, who works closely with digital brands to manage their brand image, says that stunts like this show that Facebook is committed to improving its reputation when it comes to user privacy. However, she fails to see how the Facebook Café idea could possibly help to restore trust in the platform.

“Facebook are trying to regain some legitimacy in regards to valuing its users’ privacy,” Elgadi told Verdict. “Though I, like many I assume, fail to see how a pop-up café is a step in the right direction.

“How will this café make Facebook users feel safe? How will it signify that their data is protected? Is Facebook actually fixing its problems or merely using this café to try and distract us from them?”

According to Andy Poole, a director for PR company Chapman Poole, the answer to Elgadi’s final question is probably the latter.

“Experimental events and pop-ups like this are great for grabbing public attention and creating talkability,” Poole told Verdict.

While the attention might encourage some to give their privacy settings some thought – something that Facebook should be given due credit for – there are probably better ways to get users to review their settings, and on a scale that encourages all of its 2.4 billion monthly active users worldwide to do so, rather than the odd few in London. Such as, Poole suggests, restricting users’ Facebook access until they’ve carried out a privacy check-up.

In the wake of 2018’s scandals, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his “Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking”, which insisted that the company was committed to building a platform that was “focused on privacy first”.

However, according to Rafael Laguna, CEO of open source communications provider Open-Xchange, Facebook is seemingly “privacy-washing” – the “in-vogue ‘corporate social responsibility’ cause of the moment” – by attempting to create the impression of change, rather than actually changing.

As Laguna notes, Facebook’s business model is heavily reliant on collecting user data, which allows it to offer advertisers highly-targeted pools of users to advertise to.  Without said data, businesses built on data monetisation won’t be able to survive.

Given the implications of Facebook’s poor history, we all hope that Facebook is changing its act. But unfortunately for Zuckerberg, mud sticks, and the majority will feel that the Facebook Café is nothing more than, as Poole puts it, a “nice bit of gloss” over yet another privacy blunder.

“Time will tell” whether consumers fall for this apparently attempt to privacy-wash us, Laguna told Verdict. “But, I’d suspect that user opinion won’t be changed by a trendy, pop-up café.”

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