It’s only Tuesday, and it’s already been a rough week for Facebook. Yesterday, a collection of news organizations published stories based on the thousands of documents provided by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen.
Then, Monday evening, Facebook delivered its third-quarter results, during an earnings call in which the company said it faced “major headwinds,” largely due to the changes Apple made in iOS 14.5, requiring developers to ask permission before tracking users across apps and websites. That has had a real impact on Facebook’s advertising business in terms of its ability to target ads and measure their effectiveness.
During the earnings call, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, placed the blame for the company’s image problem squarely on “a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.” And he blamed the company’s depressed results on “Apple’s changes that are… negatively affecting our business.”
“Before we get to our product update, I want to discuss the recent debate around our company,” Zuckerberg began, actually yelling at times. Facebook’s head of communications tried to make a joke about it, but it was clear to anyone listening that Zuckerberg was angry.
Of course, if Zuckerberg believes that reporters are painting a false picture, Facebook isn’t doing anything to paint a better one. If the company had documents that made it look better, why doesn’t it just release those?
When Facebook’s head of safety, Antigone Davis, testified before Congress, the company said it was trying to find a way to share more of its research. That’s great, except, Facebook runs a website with 3.6 billion users (according to its most recent results). If it wanted to share more of its research, it could simply publish it on Facebook.
The thing is, it isn’t trying to share more, it’s trying to change the narrative. The fact is, sharing more information wouldn’t do that. Instead, the company is picking fights.
It’s understandable why Zuckerberg might think that picking a fight with the news media would be an effective way to navigate a crisis. Certainly, he watched former President Trump do just that.
Except, Trump was able to convince his supporters that the news media was aligned with his enemies. The problem for Facebook is, no one thinks that news organizations are reporting on Facebook because they are aligned with TikTok.
And, I don’t know anyone that thinks Apple is wrong for wanting to give users a choice over whether their information is tracked and used to target them with ads. If that’s a problem for Facebook, it’s not Apple’s fault. It’s a problem with the business model.
Facebook’s response, however, isn’t about how it should change its business model. Instead of any degree of self-awareness, the company has decided it’s going to push back on its critics and try to change the subject. Facebook isn’t actually trying to change any of the things that are wrong with Facebook.
Zuckerberg did talk a lot about the metaverse and said he plans to give more details later this week at Connect, the company’s developer conference.
To be fair, Zuckerberg did say that the company is “on track to spend more than $5 billion on safety and security in 2021.” That might sound impressive, but considering the company made $115 billion in the last 12 months, it’s barely anything. It’s only half of what Facebook says it plans to spend on building the metaverse.
I’d think that before you go and build an all-immersive internet experience where you expect people to spend all of their time, you might want to dial in the safety and security part.
Ironically, some people inside the company see that there’s a problem. All of those leaked documents are indicative of the fact that there really are people inside the company who want to fix the problems with Facebook. That’s what makes Zuckerberg’s response so discouraging.
It isn’t so much that he dismisses the reporting of news organizations based on internal documents, it’s that he discounted the findings in those documents in the first place. Those documents are emails and conversations from people who work at Facebook who see the problems the platform is causing and are trying to fix it, only to be shut down in the name of things like engagement and the bottom line.
Zuckerberg, of course, argues that it isn’t just about the bottom line, but about “balancing different difficult social values.” To that, I would simply suggest that if you build a platform that becomes so big that it’s too hard to manage all of the harm it causes to its users and to society, you probably shouldn’t have built it. At a minimum, you should make drastic changes to make it less harmful.