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Facebook cannot keep burying its head in the sand and hope things blow over

Net Results: Rebrand flop a sign social media giant needs to face up to problems after another turbulent year

If Facebook owner Meta hoped it might be able to close out what has been an "annus horribilis" quietly, then it is very much mistaken.

After a year spent fire-fighting, it seems as if the company is set to end 2021 as it began, wondering just how it is that it is always viewed as the bad guy.

Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, likes to waffle on about how it is bringing the world closer together, and it is in many ways correct about this. It has after all made millions of people around the world loathe it to a degree rarely seen.

Any hope that a new name might make people think more positively about the company has failed dismally. Indeed, anyone unfortunate enough to view the clip of Mark Zuckerberg trying to be a human as he discussed the company's wish to own the metaverse could only think worse of the tech giant.


“Zuckerberg announces a fantasy world where Facebook is not a horrible company,” is how Vice wittily described it.

Zuckerberg's wooden performance was only bettered by the image of former deputy prime minister of Britain Nick Clegg visibly squirming as he tried to defend his employer via a link-up at Web Summit last month.

Appearing just a day after whistleblower Frances Haugen took to the stage in Lisbon to warn that people's lives were at risk because of Meta's decision to serve up hateful content, it was embarrassing to see the company's vice-president of public affairs try to say things weren't as bad as they looked.

“The vast majority of content on Facebook is babies, barbecues and bar mitzvahs,” he claimed, having obviously not had a chance to look at the hate spilling out on news feeds around the world.

Meanwhile, Sheryl Sandberg, who has previously been rolled out to defend the company when it has got itself in trouble, seems to have been hidden away in a bunker, so rarely is she seen in public.

Meta’s horrible year continued unabated this week with news that it has been told by the UK competition watchdog to sell popular animated images platform Giphy, which it acquired for a reported $400 million in May 2020. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said the acquisition would reduce competition between social media platforms and in display advertising, something Meta disputes.

Meta had been looking to integrate the popular animated images platform with Instagram but the CMA was concerned Meta might deny competitors access to Giphy GIFs, or force them to provide more user data in order to avail of them.

The order to sell comes shortly after the CMA fined the company a record $70 million for breaching an order imposed during its investigation into the acquisition.

That wasn't the only blow Meta received this week. Perhaps an even greater one is the loss of David Marcus, who announced he is leaving the company's crypto unit Novi shortly.

Marcus, who joined the tech giant in 2014, is the latest in a number of departures of senior Facebook executives in recent years. Chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer announced in September he was also stepping down from his role after 13 years at the company. WhatsApp founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum also previously left the company as did Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

The departure of Marcus is seen as a significant blow to the company, which continues to seek to diversify beyond advertising. It comes as Meta’s move into digital currencies continues to face considerable opposition, both from other industry players and regulators.

It isn’t all bad news of course. On Tuesday, it was revealed that Facebook’s main Irish subsidiary has seen a huge jump in revenues and profits. Revenues jumped by €6.3 billion to €40.6 billion at Facebook Ireland in 2020 as pretax profits rose to €890 million from €482 million a year earlier. Its parent recently reported $29.01 billion in third-quarter revenue, up 35 per cent year-on-year.

But even this was overshadowed by the revelation that the company has had to pay out an additional €35 million to settle outstanding tax matters and has more than trebled the amount of provisions put aside to deal with expected fines arising from investigations by European data protection authorities.

Still to come for the company is an appearance by Instagram chief Adam Mosseri before the US Congress to answer questions about child safety on the platform. Mosseri is set to appear at a sub-committee next week to testify for the first time after internal company research leaked by Haugen earlier this year revealed the effects that Instagram has on teenage mental health.

One of the conclusions from the internal research was: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

Of course, Meta/Facebook has faced difficult times before, most notably following election meddling that took place involving data obtained by Cambridge Analytica that assisted Donald Trump in becoming US president in 2016.

It seems obvious though that pressure is mounting on the company in a way unseen previously with all manner of people expecting them to do more to combat hate, ensure users’ safety and address competition concerns. The tech giant’s response to date has been to continually bury its head in the sand and hope that things blow over. This can’t continue though as senior executives continue to jump ship.

If Facebook wants to ensure that every year is not a bad year , it needs to face up to its problems rather than just spout more empty platitudes.