When empires crumble they slide slowly at first, then the temple walls come crashing down. Facebook is not quite at the latter stage yet, but you can hear the creaking in the pillars and lintels. This week, the social media giant suffered two blows: an outage which took down its platform, along with Instagram and WhatsApp, and an expose by a disillusioned ex-employee who accuses the company of saying one thing about social responsibility in public – while behaving quite differently in private.
Many of us might not notice if Facebook suddenly wasn’t there. But it is a different story for the many businesses which have built their model on the back of selling via Facebook or Instagram. For them, Facebook is as important a part of their infrastructure as the postal service or telephone network was for previous generations. They rely on Facebook’s platforms being constantly available. Yet in the past the post sometimes failed and the telephone lines came down, and so too Monday’s few hours without Facebook – which the world endured, or enjoyed, according to your personal view – weren’t necessarily an existential threat to Facebook.
The emergence of Frances Haugen, a data scientist who resigned from Facebook earlier this year, taking thousands of pages of internal documents with her, might turn out to be the bigger crisis. Haugen, who worked in the Orwellian-sounding Civic Integrity department, has made eight complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission which polices the matter of what information corporations put to the market. She alleges that the pronouncements made by Facebook on social responsibility – such as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s promises to remove harmful content from the platform – are at odds with what is revealed in the Facebook documents. The latter, she says, reveal that the company has only succeeded in taking action in 3 to 5 per cent of posts containing hateful content and 0.6 per cent of posts containing violence and incitement. An internal Facebook study suggests that 13.5 per cent of teenage girls said that Instagram had made their thoughts of suicide worse; while 17 per cent said the same of eating disorders.
For years, social media companies didn’t seem to worry much about this sort of thing. They acted as if they were above being regulated, and indeed that they were a force for good – they were part of a supra-national democratic infrastructure which would keep governments in their place. At the same time, as revealed by the Cambridge Analytica controversy, many users of social media were ignorant of how their data was being harvested and exploited. But the atmosphere is changing. The pandemic has unleashed a new fashion for government intervention in western democracies. The public image of social media companies suddenly matters a lot more than it has ever done.
Facebook hired Nick Clegg in the hope of dealing with such issues. So far, he is not proving a great success. It has been interesting how many technology-based investment funds in recent years, while happy to invest in the other ‘FAANGs’, seemed to have small or non-existent stakes in Facebook. Perhaps they could see what was coming, and that of all technology companies, Facebook has the dimmest future.
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