After Facebook released mixed third-quarter numbers, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Wall Street analysts the company’s efforts to shore up security on its namesake platform is an “arms race” that will last for at least another year.
Echoing comments he has made throughout a turbulent 2018 that has seen the company’s share price slide by more than 20%, Zuckerberg said the company is in the second year of a three-year process of improving security. News has been steady and bruising about the security vulnerabilities of Facebook on many fronts. Foreign powers have used it to throw elections; outside partners like Cambridge Analytica have misused consumer data; and straight-up hacks like the one that occurred a few weeks ago have further eroded trust.
Given its massive base — now up to 2.3 billion users a month and 1.5 billion a day — the scale of the fight will make it costly, Zuckerberg warned. “There’s an element of this that is an arms race,” he said. “These are not problems that we fix. They’re problems that you reduce over time. There’s no silver bullet where you do the thing and then you’re done.” It will not be until the end of 2019 when “we’re all as dialed in as we’d all like to be,” he said. “But even then we won’t be perfect.”
Without recalling the 2016 presidential race specifically, Zuckerberg called next week’s mid-term elections “a real test. We will see all the good and bad that humanity can do.”
Elsewhere in the business, Zuckerberg said the company’s original video efforts Facebook Watch and IGTV are making progress. Watch, he said, achieved “3X” growth in the U.S. over the past few months — though he never explained what metric that refers to, or the value of X.
Even so, “these services are still well behind YouTube, our primary competitor in the space, but they are growing quickly,” he said. The biggest challenge, he said, has been reconciling the social essence of Facebook’s platforms with the secular industry trend of delivering more video.
“Our journey with video has been a little bit funny,” he conceded. “People want to watch a lot of video … but we’ve had to rate-limit its growth.” The company has to pump the brakes, he added, “when we see passive consumption of video displacing social interactions.”
While there were some indications of the toll the recent data scandals has taken, with user growth numbers missing forecasts and revenue growth the slowest it has been in six years, there is no sign of outright advertiser revolt. (Though don’t tell that to the advertisers who are suing Facebook, claiming it manipulated its statistics in order to secure higher rates.)
CFO David Wehner projected a mid- to high-single-digit deceleration in revenue growth in the fourth quarter due to data privacy initiatives, lower rates in some developing parts of the world and stories (as opposed to feeds) displacing ad impressions.
Investors seemed satisfied that the company was showing some stability heading into the end of what Zuckerberg called “a tough year.” After shares rose 3% on the day to $146.22, they continued to climb in after-hours trading.
None of the analysts on the call asked about the state of the executive team, a noteworthy void in an hour-long discussion of a quarter in which the co-founders of Instagram made a noisy departure from the company.
Unlike some analysts who see trouble ahead, Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst at eMarketer, had a more sanguine reaction. “Facebook grew revenue at a nice pace in the important U.S. and Canada markets,” she said. “Facebook also managed to eke out a small usage gain in the U.S. and Canada. After the flatness we saw last quarter, that’s a good sign. … Overall, given all the challenges Facebook has faced this year, this is a decent earnings report.”
Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research agreed that the results were “decent for the current quarter,” but he called them “negative relative to our expectations for 2019” given the higher security expenses and shifts in ad spending. He reiterated his “sell” rating on the stock and dropped his 12-month price target to $125 from $131 a share.