Mark Zuckerberg might want to sell us all on the metaverse, but there are far more pressing issues for the social media giant. As yet more whistle-blowers emerge off the back of a month of chaos, what lies ahead for the $1 trillion company?
Reports that had emerged weeks ago suggesting that Facebook will change its name were correct, signally a shift in focus from the world’s biggest tech giant. It is perhaps the biggest marker yet of just how far the fall from grace has been for Mark Zuckerberg’s company. In the recent edition of the annual Verge Tech Survey, 34% of people said they had a negative opinion of the brand, down six percent on last year when it was already the second worst-performing company. 31% said that they believed it had a negative impact on society and just 56% said that they trusted Facebook with their personal information. The most striking revelation though was that 72% of those surveyed said that they think Facebook has too much power. Zuckerberg claims his name change and rebrand plans are to refocus public attention on the company’s long-term goal to create ‘a new metaverse’, but in reality, he is clearly scrambling for a way to win back public confidence.
Recently, crises have come thick and fast for the California-based multinational. The week beginning 4th October was certainly the worst in the company’s history. It all began when former employee Frances Haugen leaked documents showing that Facebook ignored internal evidence that its Instagram services were having a negative effect on the mental health of teenagers. This was followed by a bombshell appearance on the US politics show 60 Minutes and a showstopping Congress hearing at the end of the week where things went from bad to worse for the tech giant.
In stark contrast to Zuckerberg and other tech bosses during their own recent congressional hearings, Haugen provided clear-cut answers and declined to comment on issues she didn’t know about. This was all made much easier by the slew of documents she revealed to the house.
Amidst this chaos came an even bigger disaster for Facebook. On Monday 4th and Friday 9th, the 2.8 billion people who use Facebook’s services around the world were hit by lengthy global outages. Businesses were brought to standstill, including Facebook itself, with employees unable to access text messages and emails. It was a poignant reminder as to just how embedded the company has become in the daily lives of people around the world. The way in which several African countries saw their economies come to a halt owing to their reliance on Facebook-based payment platforms illustrates many of the dangers of an overreliance on so-called ‘big tech’.
And to put the cherry on top, recently a new whistle-blower has emerged. This former employee has evidence that Facebook was aware of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and chose not to take action at an earlier stage, as well as echoing Haugen’s sentiments that the company continually “puts profits before efforts to fight hate speech and misinformation“.
So, out of all this, what lies ahead? These recent problems have only intensified calls for stricter regulation of the company, most prominently in the US. There, it awaits the result of planned congressional legislation, a judgement from the new US Attorney General, and the outcome of a lawsuit led by the Federal Trade Commission that was relaunched in August. The UK and EU look ready to follow whatever path the United States takes, but appetite for change here is yet to spread into the political mainstream in the same way as it has across the pond.
Despite recent shifts in how people perceive the company, it seems almost impossible that public pressure will force Facebook to make any kind of significant changes. It is too integrated into businesses and the economies of countries around the world; but more importantly it is seen as far too much of an essential to everyday life for the vast majority of ordinary people.
The most likely outcome then is more worrying. Change is unlikely, perhaps impossible, and will certainly be slow-moving if it does ever arrive. Gautam Hans, a Law Professor at Vanderbilt University, pointed out in an interview with the Guardian that the business has dodged regulatory scrutiny since its inception. “I think Facebook will survive”, he said. “It’s too powerful and too robust. It’s hard to think of a world in which it doesn’t exist.”
So, it’s almost impossible to say what the next twist in the tale will be for the newly named Meta. Perhaps the public or employees can force change, perhaps governments will increase regulation. In reality though, the road ahead is long – everyone can see the problem, but few can agree on how to solve it.
Image Credit: Anthony Quintano / CC BY 2.0