Facebook has endured one of the most punishing stretches of corporate coverage in recent memory, exposing its immense power and blithe disregard for its deleterious impacts.
But none of it really matters.
One overarching theme of the coverage, prompted by the meting out of tens of thousands of pages of internal documents by the whistleblower and former employee Frances Haugen, is that Facebook’s business priorities trump user privacy and safety. Facebook, Haugen told the Senate last month, knows how to remedy many of its problems “but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
The Washington Post last week detailed how Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, often overruled researchers’ concerns and suggestions in pursuit of growth. And The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on Haugen’s trove, demonstrated how Facebook continued to pursue younger users despite evidence that Instagram negatively affected the mental health of teenagers and worsened some teen girls’ body image issues.
The coverage — including documentation that Facebook largely neglected regions outside the United States that are more susceptible to real-world harm from social media posts, among other ills — presents a chilling portrait of a company willing to let its website be overrun by hateful rhetoric, dangerous misinformation and propaganda in pursuit of the almighty buck.
Facebook, of course, denies this, noting an investment of $13 billion and 40,000 employees “to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
Why doesn’t this spiraling public relations crisis matter? Facebook simply hasn’t been compelled to change its behavior. If pure profit, rather than safety or the dissemination of correct information, is the company’s goal, it is a roaring success.
Advertisers are sticking by Zuckerberg. In Facebook’s third quarter, ad sales jumped 33% from the same period the year before, to $28.3 billion, helping push profits up 17% to $9.2 billion.
Until advertisers start paring back their spending on Facebook, Congress, Haugen and the press are but bumps in the road. Why would Pfizer or Nike walk away? Facebook is where their buyers are, and it’s where Pfizer can ensure that drug marketing will be seen by 40-something rheumatoid arthritis sufferers.
Facebook has demonstrated it won’t address its systemic problems until forced to do so. Now, it appears, only advertisers can make the status quo unprofitable and unsustainable.