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Facebook Midas touch still impressive

The social media giant deserves all the criticism headed its way. But, man, can it make money.

Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that it set aside

Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that it set aside $3 billion related to an expected Federal Trade Commission crackdown on the company for violating promises to protect user privacy. Credit: AP/Richard Drew

Facebook’s earnings report on Wednesday was an encapsulation of the two sides of the company: the unscrupulous internet citizen and the genius at making money.

Facebook disclosed that it set aside $3 billion related to an expected Federal Trade Commission crackdown on the company for violating promises to protect user privacy. The FTC inquiry stems from the revelations last year that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica tapped information on millions of Facebook users. Facebook estimated it will cost as much as $5 billion to resolve the inquiry.

We don’t need a reminder, but this new regulatory expense underscores Facebook’s drama about its data hoarding and ad targeting, its sometimes-callous disregard toward information on its users and its missteps in dealing with calls to violence, attempted election manipulation and other abuses of its internet hangouts.

That’s the real Facebook — the unreliable steward of some of the most widely used communication and information-distribution tools in the world.

But the other side that Facebook showed Wednesday is also real. For years, it has proved incredibly adept at making money and staying on top of trends.

Yes, Facebook’s revenue growth is slowing, and it is running out of ways to make money from its business of tucking personalized commercials in between streams of posts on Facebook and more recently on its Instagram app. But a reported growth rate of 26 percent and operating profit margins above 40 percent are enviable for a company of Facebook’s size.

The dichotomy between “internet cesspool Facebook” and “perpetual money-machine Facebook” begs a question: Is Facebook exceptional at making money in spite of being a data hog, an unscrupulous repository of personal information and a poor overseer of the internet’s high-stakes tools? Or is Facebook exceptional at making money because of those qualities? I hope it’s the former. I worry it’s the latter.

Given Facebook’s softening-but-still-incredible financial results during its two years of bad headlines and political scolding, it’s tempting to conclude that nothing matters. Facebook users and advertisers may feel terrible about the company, but they keep coming back for more because they don’t care what happens to user data or that Facebook is a home to violent extremists or is a favorite tool of foreign propagandists.

The trouble is, we can’t rerun history. Maybe absent two years of crisis, Facebook would be even bigger and richer than it is now. Maybe it wouldn’t be looking under every rock now for fresh revenue sources, and shifting into private messaging, if it hadn’t been through Russia investigations, Myanmar violence, political missteps and data leaks.

Facebook is a financial powerhouse, but it’s also not true that nothing that happened to Facebook has hurt or mattered at all. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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