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After its worst year ever, Facebook hands out free hot chocolate and security tips

After a year of scandal after scandal, Facebook hosted a pop-up event at a New York Christmas market to hand...

Posted: Dec. 14, 2018 4:13 AM
Updated: Dec. 14, 2018 4:13 AM

After a year of scandal after scandal, Facebook hosted a pop-up event at a New York Christmas market to hand out free hot chocolate and security advice.

If the pop-up had any truly significant impact, perhaps it may have been on the psyche of nearby hot chocolate vendors. Big tech trampling on small local businesses is normally more of an Amazon thing, after all. But they didn't need to be too concerned: The pop-up, and the hot chocolate topped with marshmallows in the shape of the "F" in Facebook's logo that it served, was available for only one day.

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But that one day, which Facebook billed as time it would spend helping users understand their privacy settings, was still plenty of time for the company to invite reporters from a number of media outlets to show off how it's advocating that users to take advantage of its security and privacy tools.

Inside the pop-up, which was located in a wooden and plastic temporary building about the size of a cargo container, Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said the effort was also a way for the company to hear more from its users in person.

Egan said the dozen or so staff on hand would even show visitors how to delete their Facebook accounts, if asked. (One Facebook staffer on hand quipped later that they weren't even sure if they knew how to do so).

"We will help people do whatever it is that they feel they need to do," Egan said. "Our goal is for people to feel good about their experience on Facebook and if that means they want to take their data somewhere else that's fine too."

2018 was almost certainly the most challenging year in Facebook's 15-year history. Still reeling from Russian interference on its platform during the 2016 election, the social network was hit in March with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook also suffered the biggest wipeout in stock market history, was hit with its most serious security breach to date and was accused of peddling an anti-semitic conspiracy theory -- something it denies.

It may have needed to hand out something stronger than hot chocolate.

The company did say that it's doing this pop-up more than once; it plans to open up its pop-up security station in other US cities next year, it said. And it's already held similar events in Europe and Dubai that attracted thousands of visitors, the company told CNN.

And though doing something like this for only one day and with the press invited might be criticized as a publicity stunt, some people -— including at least one member of Congress — may find a visit useful. Last Tuesday, Congressman Steve Cohen asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai during a congressional hearing if the company had considered having support agents talk to users in the real world to help them adjust their privacy settings.

At least some people who visited the pop-up felt the same way. A couple in their 20s visiting New York City from Houston, who asked that their names not be used, told CNN Business they found the advice they got from Facebook useful — and said that the hot chocolate was a bonus.

Facebook's community outreach is reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg's mission to visit all 50 states in 2017.

Asked if Zuckerberg would go on another tour anytime soon, one Facebook employee in Bryant Park said, "I think he's busy."

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