Facebook has endured one of the most punishing stretches of corporate coverage in recent memory, exposing its immense power and blithe disregard for its deleterious impacts.
But none of it really matters.
One overarching theme of the coverage, prompted by the meting out of tens of thousands of pages of internal documents by former employee and the whistle-blower Frances Haugen, is that Facebook’s business priorities trump user privacy and safety. Facebook, Haugen told the Senate this month, knows how to remedy many of its problems “but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
The Washington Post this week detailed how Facebook’s C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, often overruled researchers’ concerns and suggestions in pursuit of growth. And The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on Haugen’s trove, demonstrated how Facebook continued to pursue younger users in spite of evidence that Instagram negatively affected the mental health of teenagers and worsened some teen girls’ body image issues.
The coverage — including documentation that Facebook largely neglected regions outside the United States that are more susceptible to real-world harm from social media posts, among other ills — presents a chilling portrait of a company willing to let its website be overrun by hateful rhetoric, dangerous misinformation and propaganda in pursuit of the almighty buck.
Facebook, of course, denies this, noting an investment of $13 billion and 40,000 employees “to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
Why doesn’t this spiralling public relations crisis matter? Facebook simply hasn’t been compelled to change its behaviour. If pure profit, rather than safety or the dissemination of correct information, is the company’s goal, it is a roaring success.
Advertisers are sticking by Zuckerberg. In Facebook’s third quarter, ad sales jumped 33 per cent from the same period the year before, to $28.3 billion, helping push profits up 17 per cent to $9.2 billion. The company has got enough cash on hand to buy back $50 billion worth of its stock; that’s nearly four times what it says it’s spent on safety.
Facebook’s public relations executives may be working overtime to contain an onslaught that seems without end. (Haugen is distributing materials to a consortium of some 17 outlets for what appears to be weeks’ worth of stories.) But the company has faced its share of sharp criticism before — remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal way back in 2018? — and congressional inquiries. But through it all, its stock has proved resilient.
Federal lawmakers profess to be motivated this time. But it’s a safer bet that any comprehensive controls on Big Tech will descend into partisan squabbling. And Facebook has little to fear from users, who continue to visit its sites in ever greater numbers.
Until advertisers start paring back their spending on Facebook, Congress, Haugen and the press are but bumps in the road. Why would Pfizer or Nike walk away? Facebook is where their buyers are, and it’s where Pfizer can ensure that drug marketing will be seen by 40-something rheumatoid arthritis sufferers.
Reporting indicates that Facebook and Zuckerberg rarely heed the advice of their own researchers who have detailed solutions to the growing incidents of hate speech and political unrest on the site. But Facebook is likely to listen to those who control the purse strings. On a day when at least a dozen stories critical of Facebook published and Haugen appeared before British Parliament urging tighter tech regulation, Zuckerberg began his prepared earnings remarks lamenting the impact of Apple’s iPhone privacy changes on Facebook’s ad business.
There’s a precedent for marketers to express outrage. Last year, more than 1,000 advertisers briefly cut their spending on Facebook to protest its failures to curtail hate speech and misinformation. The boycott led to some positive changes, including hiring civil rights experts and tightening controls on extremism in Facebook groups.
Advertisers had strong words for Facebook then, calling the lack of care in its moderation approach “extreme” and saying the platform faced “a time of reckoning.” They have been silent so far this time. But the problem with a temporary cut to ad spending is that it usually comes roaring back later — and so it has with Facebook.
A 2017 ad boycott of YouTube by Walmart, AT&T, Pepsi and other major advertisers, after it was revealed that Google was placing ads alongside content from extremists, led YouTube to tighten its controls over who could monetise their content. Two years later, another ad boycott of the video platform yielded similar results.
Of course, pulling advertising from, say, Jeanine Pirro’s or Tucker Carlson’s cable news talk shows is not the same as cutting ties with some 3.6 billion people who use Facebook and its other apps. But if aligning with a site facilitating human trafficking, ethnic cleansing and vicious cartels isn’t sufficient to give advertisers pause, it’s hard to imagine what would.
“Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change,” as Haugen put it before Congress.
Facebook has demonstrated it won’t address its systemic problems until forced to do so. Now, it appears, only advertisers can make the status quo unprofitable and unsustainable.
Greg Bensinger is an American columnist
The New York Times