Got Facebook fatigue yet?
The company is certainly hoping you do. Probably the best it can hope for is that the towering tsunami of stories breaking this week overwhelms us all, as 17 media outlets churn out initial stories from Facebook documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen. People might then seek relief in any story not about Facebook.
Anyone trying to keep up with the stories – there are dozens, and rising – will need to fight off Facebook whiplash, as attention swings between the multitudinous coverage coming from print, radio, TV, cable, and podcast – plus hearings before the US Congress and UK parliament, with the European Parliament up next.
While the going may be bumpy for the company at the moment, Facebook may well just batten down and wait it out. Recent history indicates with depressing consistency that not much changes at all negatively for the social media giant when it becomes the eye of any media storm.
We’ve been here before. The Cambridge Analytica scandal. The “we won’t fact-check politicians” exasperation. The questionable pro-Brexit ads. The obvious ultra-right rallying ahead of enraged clashes. The exposé regarding traumatised content moderators. The violent videos, sometimes live-streamed. The bullying of children, women, activists, people of colour. On and on.
Yet Facebook just keeps getting bigger, and its valuation arcs ever upwards. It's been buffeted about by critical stories since January, and nonetheless on Monday recorded a 35 per cent rise in quarterly revenue on the same period last year. Quarterly profit, at $9.2 billion, was up 17 per cent on last year. No annus horribilis yet for Mark Zuckerberg, then.
Despite the current media feeding frenzy, nothing seems likely to change. Not least because, broadly, nothing new is being said.
The Washington Post summarised the gist of the stories so far under five key points:
1. Zuckerberg’s public claims often conflict with internal research
2. Facebook dropped its guard before the January 6th insurrection centring on the US Capitol Building.
3. Facebook fails to effectively police content in much of the world.
4. Facebook chooses maximum engagement over user safety.
5. Facebook took years to implement a simple fix for anger and misinformation.
Such issues have been variously documented, some for years. They're in three books I've reviewed just in the past year – The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How it Owns Us by James Ball; Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism by Jillian York; and An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. It's all been there, in plain sight. Haugen's given us even more internal-document confirmation.
She’s also stated that she felt it particularly important to document and highlight the serious, life-destroying problems with Facebook in the non-English-speaking world, in countries in turmoil. That angle often gets lost or ignored in North American and European press coverage.
And yet, journalists, NGOs and activists in those countries, and those who support them, such as York, have been saying all this for years. Kang and Frenkel also raised these points in their recent book.
Why, an actual Nobel was given to a journalist just weeks ago for work that has chronicled Facebook's appalling actions in the Philippines, as president Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Filipina journalist Maria Ressa was co-awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, with the Nobel Committee noting that "Ms Ressa and [her media organisation] Rappler have … documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse". To be more precise, documenting Facebook.
Even though lives have been placed in jeopardy due to Facebook’s failure to act on problems with how it operates in these countries, the voices of activists and journalists on the ground, who have documented the issues, have been largely shrugged off by media, politicians and the general public in places where regulatory action could have been taken to address the problems.
And, one could say, by Haugen, who initially has only given access to what are now called the Facebook Papers to, wait for it, 17 US media outlets. Perhaps that will change, but it’s patronising to people in those countries to force dependence on US media interpreters.
How to begin to address the issues exposed in the Facebook Papers? The only effective answer is one that has been called for by yet another person who has highlighted the same issues previously: Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff. In her 2019 book Surveillance Capitalism, she describes how the lucrative business models of online companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon lie in gathering as much of our personal data as possible, then either selling the data itself, or access to audiences defined by it, to other companies and advertisers. Corporate algorithms are propelled by "audience engagement" – the more enraging the content, the more engagement.
The solution, the only one that will stem the endless personal and societal chaos caused by surveillance-driven capitalism, is to ban this business model. Until that happens, the Facebook stories will keep on coming. And nothing will change.