Facebook as we know it has come to an end. The company, by now a constant in popular culture and virtually impossible to be unfamiliar with if you have access to the Internet, has a complex and polarizing story filled with controversies, treasons, informants, revelations, lawsuits, and plot twists. And, although it seems that I have just described one of the Mission Impossible movies or a Suits episode, it is extremely important that each one of us understands how this story affects society as a whole, as well as individuals and the audience of the Facebook group. And to those who think that this article has nothing to do with you, I assure you that you are involved in it, even if you don’t think so: do you have Instagram or Whatsapp? Well, there you go. Those two platforms are owned by Facebook Inc. Corporation, as well as several other functionalities you might be using in your day-to-day life and didn’t even know were connected to that characteristic blue logo.
The company has been a major force in a variety of global events to date, from persecution of minorities to presidential elections, as well as a “society shaper” that directly influences much of how we develop as human beings today, including, for example, your mental health. In this article, I will try to give you a read of those policy terms and the fine print you never read before clicking “I’ve read and agree” (don’t worry, you’re not alone! I do that too), so that you can understand a bit better what is currently changing in Facebook and how it will impact each one of us and our futures. And, believe me, this impact is nothing short of extraordinary.
Facebook, which now amounts alone to a net worth that exceeds one hundred billion US dollars, had an unconventional start to say the least. In 2004, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, hacked into the university’s student database to get the pictures of all of the female students on campus, and from that archive created a website that allowed other students to rank those girls in terms of their physical appearance. The tool, called “Facemash”, gained huge popularity despite having been taken down very quickly after its availability. From that experience - somewhat not funny joke, somewhat illegal prank -, Zuckeberg had the means and the inspiration to create “The Facebook”, as it was called at the time. With the help of his friend Eduardo Saverin (which is Brazilian, might I add), as well as other co-founders, he created a platform for Harvard students to upload their pictures to and interact with other people from their own campus. Needless to say that, as expected based on the previous success of “Facemash”, “The Facebook” was an instant hit: only a few months later the platform went beyond Harvard gates and started expanding towards other colleges, eventually becoming popular in several other institutions all throughout the United States. The following years saw a steady expansion at an extremely fast rate, as Facebook was gradually made available in all colleges in the US, then to high school students, then to anyone older than thirteen in the whole world. From that point on, in a nutshell, Zuckerberg turned down an acquisition offer of $1 billion (a move that was shocking at the time, but proved to be very lucrative), innovated by introducing commentary and like options to social media (which have quite literally shaped the way each one of those platforms looks like today), gained political power and sparked privacy concerns, bought Instagram and Whatsapp, went to court, and has been the protagonist of many, many, scandals.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who still looks very much like a college sophomore.
The political power
As already mentioned, the Facebook group has risen to have an unforeseen impact in the world - who would have thought, in 2004, that a Harvard dropout who ranked girls online would build an empire capable of influencing societal outcomes and the way whole populations think, as well as playing a part in the politics of countries from the US and the UK to Myanmar and India? As globalization becomes more and more present and communication is made easier by the day, secluded populations or individuals who don’t usually have a political voice have suddenly been given the opportunity to not only connect with people from all around the world, but spread knowledge about their existence and actually generate change that they would not be able to have done otherwise. I believe that one of the reasons why Facebook (and social media, in general) has become so successful is because it appeals to this natural human urgency to be heard, comprehended, and accepted, even if in the simplest of ways - and, well, Zuckerberg’s network presented this opportunity in a way that had never been done before. Therefore, as the number of users climbed from thousands to millions to billions, Facebook’s (and later on Instagram’s) influence grew accordingly, becoming a platform in which anyone could impact all of those other users that were willing to connect and trade information.
While Facebook has brought to society huge advancements and opportunities that were unfathomable before, especially in terms of allowing for much easier and accessible communication, there have been instances when the company was involved with conflicts and negative - or even illegal - events of various magnitudes all around the world. Furthermore, as there is an increase in the influence of social media in political and social movements, most of the biggest scandals that Facebook has been involved with to this day are of that nature, as leaks and journalistic reports have shown the company’s direct involvement with illegal information sellings, purposeful influencing of the user’s opinions, and several other actions that are being considered more immoral and dangerous as time progresses. In social media, the merchandise is us, users, whose information can be sold and whose opinions can be manipulated, and that is where the danger of Facebook lies: it is a tool that can cause a lot of improvement and well-being, but, if explored for malicious intents, can be the source for enormous harm.
Examples of these instances include countries, people, and circumstances as diverse as can be, but I will mention here two, for the sake of illustration: the Rohingya persecutions and the 2016 United States presidential elections. Firstly, Facebook has potentially played a part in worsening the Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, which led to the death of thousands and the fleeing of more than 700,000 people during the years of 2016 and 2017, according to BBC. Facebook created conditions for an increase in hostility towards the minority group, as the platform became a means through which many ultra-Buddhist individuals - including those in the government and military - spreaded information that is highly violating to human’s rights. A UN report has deemed Facebook’s response to that slow and ineffective, as, for example, the military organization responsible for the cleansing itself was not restricted from using the platform in any way until 2018, when Facebook Inc. Corporation acknowledged that their social media was a contributor to “foment division and incite offline violence”, in this specific situation.
On the other side of the world, the United States’s election of 2016 was highly influenced by Facebook, in a process that is shady to say the least. Two years prior to the election, future candidate Donald Trump’s publicity team worked with a company called Cambridge Analytics, and, as it is known by many today, in a case that shocked the world in 2018, a whistleblower revealed that the personal data of 50 million American users - about one quarter of potential voters - was harvested without their consent from Facebook back in 2014, so that the team could pick a group of individuals to target with specific political propaganda that would potentially lead to them voting for that candidate. More shockingly, it was also revealed that Facebook had known about this situation since late 2015 and had taken limited actions to repair the damage made, to pursue some sort of compensation or justice for that action, or even to alert the users whose information were stolen.
These instances raise questions of how and to which extent social media and the Internet need to be regulated, restricted, and held accountable for their often underestimated power, and show how the current policies in place to do so are lacking - not only in the United States, but in the whole world.
And so we arrive in 2021. The Facebook corporation is now an omnipresent force that impacts billions of people worldwide (for better or worse) and has been carefully rebuilding its image after every scandal as a company that is committed to keep changing for the better. Simultaneously, Zuckerberg has been acquiring several companies and developing technologies that embody “the face of the future”, transitioning from social media only to an empire that also encompasses the construction of a new world, similar to those of futuristic sci-fi movies.
The company had managed to be mostly uninvolved with issues in the past year or so, but that momentaneous peace seems to have been just a buildup that made what happened all the more dramatic. In September of 2021, through an anonymous source - which was later on revealed as no one less than former product manager Frances Haugen -, it was revealed thousands of internal documents (which were confirmed to be veracious) from the Facebook corporation had been leaked to the Wall Street Journal, which generated a series of articles called “the Facebook Papers”. These documents spilled the tea of much of what we didn’t know about the company, revealing undisclosed details and organizational structures of the company, which evidence, basically, some very concerning facts about Facebook. See it for yourself: here are five of the main points leaked (if you have interest in seeing all of them, click on this link), that may amount to Facebook's biggest scandal in its 17 years of history:
There is “special treatment” within the platform (despite Zuckerberg's previous public and vehement claims that their rules encompass all) in the form of a program called XCheck, which exempts celebrities and high-profile users from some or even all of the policies and behavioral rules “normal” users have to follow.
Facebook Inc. Corporation is aware that its platforms are widely used by drug cartel and human trafficking groups to recruit workers or prey on victims, and the response by the company is lacking: while they do take down and ban profiles and users, many of these groups (whose’s activities Facebook is aware of) continue to use the platform without constraints.
Although Facebook has pointed to an AI-guided future in terms of its control of policy violations and hate speech, that future is much farther away than the company makes it seem to the public. Internal reports have shown that AI can’t currently identify most of the harmful or traumatic content (for example, videos or photos of shooting and racial rants) that should be taken down from the platforms, being able to only remove less than 10% of what there is, currently, floating around in social media. Furthermore, when there are those findings, Facebook software shows the posts less to viewers, but often does not apply any punishment to the accounts that have uploaded them.
Decisions taken within Facebook are very political-biased by employees and manager’s personal opinions. Debates sparked by George Floyd’s death and the US capitol invasion, in 2020, were of crucial influence on what was posted, what was restricted and which companies were advertised. And, while it is natural that human emotion interferes with each one’s activities and their work, the danger of this happening in Facebook Inc. corporation is that it is impacting the way billions of people think and shape their views of the world, potentially playing a part in defining political preferences.
Facebook is being widely used to divide and inflame the political scene in India. In one of the world’s biggest countries in terms of population, millions of users are being exposed to content that is directly related to deadly religious riots, internal reports show. As the tension between different religious groups rises in India, there has been a spike of 300% in the amount of hate speech posts in the country, and, while aware of the situation and the accountability many individuals are demanding of Facebook, the company has not taken any steps in preventing or even alleviating this issue.
This scandal is different. The main point that makes Haugen’s claims almost impossible to refute or to brush off as false, outrageous, or even the result of a personal vendetta from an ex-employee, is that she is not making them - they are being made by Facebook itself, internally. Frances Haugen has simply taken what is true and acknowledged by the corporation, but would never be disclosed, and shared it with the billions of people who use the social media platforms and don’t know the extent to which it is affecting them. Furthermore, Haugen is extremely articulate in all interviews she has made after revealing herself as the whistleblower and attains solely to what can be proven by those documents. She has also stated that she does not believe that Facebook should cease existing - she simply believes that, by bringing these documents to the attention of lawmakers and the public in general, there will be more opportunity for change within the company.
The documents were also handed to the US Senate, where Haugen has already testified and there is an ongoing investigation on Facebook. Hence, there is hope that the leaks will be a motivator for change and eventually a much-needed update in Internet regulation laws - which have been the same for 25 years.
Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, on the stand for the US Senate, on the 5th of October.
The rebranding - and the future
Now, you might be wondering what Facebook went through because of the leaks and what they had to say about it. Surprisingly, the scandal did not affect the corporation much in terms of finance, as it still is a massively lucrative company - business as usual! The problem, however, is Facebook’s reputation: while it has always been that of a dubious, morally-grey and even untrustworthy company in the public eye, it has now suffered a toll that has taken that to the next level, as many people no longer believe in what they say is being done, if leaked documents and reports will just continuously prove that to be a lie. The company has lost control of its moral perception by the public, despite still being able to profit economically. And, while Mark Zuckeberg has stated that “... my view is that what we’re seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use the leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company. The reality is that we have an open culture, where we encourage discussion and research about our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us”, at this point it is just really hard to believe him.
And then, on the 28th of October, Facebook counterattacked. I have been referring to the corporation as “Facebook” throughout the entire article for the sake of clarity, but the official name is now no longer that. Facebook Inc. Corporation has ceased to exist and is now Meta Platforms, Inc. So, yes, amidst the company’s biggest crisis in years, it has chosen to announce a change in name (it is important to clarify, though, that the social media will keep the name, but not the company that owns it). And, while it might seem somewhat insignificant, this change is the representation of a much bigger shift that has already started to occur, as the corporation will transfer its focus from social media to the development of “the multiverse”. As the blue logo is no more, and arguably the company’s boldest move so far has been formally announced, it is hard to know what to expect from it.
The new logo for what used to be Facebook.
The information released is still not complete and there is still an expected transition period for this shift in focus, but what we know is that the company is now choosing to be the face of what Zuckerberg’s vision of a future internet is: the metaverse. Although there is no specific or universally-accepted definition for that term, the now former Facebook describes it as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you”. This mysterious and far-fetched vision of the world’s future, hence, is what Meta will be focusing on from now on, eventually contributing to building a future in which virtual reality will be integrated into our everyday lives - I’m talking AI in our homes, all-encompassing gaming experiences, and connections that neutralize the barrier of space -, and, while it brings me a lot of anxiety to say it, all we can do is wait.
Let’s not be passive, though: if the troubled Facebook history and the leaks show us something is that we need to hold big tech companies accountable for their actions. The internet is, in some ways, a wild space with an often unrestricted freedom given to these companies and in which users are left with no understanding of what actually goes on behind the scenes. These platforms, now a big part of our lives, need to be demanded of accountability, whether it is from Facebook Inc. Corporation, Meta Inc. Platforms, or any other company, because we not only have the right but the need to know. We need to know how these huge influences affect us, because they just might be playing a huge role in how we think and act. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be sure that I’m making my choices with freedom, and not because I’m tied to a little icon on a screen.
Want to know more about this topic? Here are some interesting and eye-opening sources:
Frances Haugen’s interview with 60 minutes. Link
The movie “The Social Network”, which narrates the process of creating Facebook. You can watch it on Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Peacock. (PG-13 in the US, não recomendado para menores de 14 anos no Brasil)
The documentary “The Social Dilemma”, describing the effects of social media. Available on Netflix. (PG-13 in the US, não recomendado para menores de 12 anos no Brasil)
Duffy, Clare. “The Facebook Papers May Be the Biggest Crisis in the Company's History.” CNN, Cable News Network, 25 Oct. 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/10/25/tech/facebook-papers/index.html.
“The Facebook Files.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 1 Oct. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039.
“Facebook Admits It Was Used to 'Incite Offline Violence' in Myanmar.” BBC News, BBC, 6 Nov. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46105934.
“Facebook at 15: How a College Experiment Changed the World.” CNN, Cable News Network, edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/02/business/facebook-history-timeline/index.html.
“Facebook Bans Rohingya Group's Posts as Minority Faces 'Ethnic Cleansing'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Sept. 2017, www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/20/facebook-rohingya-muslims-myanmar.
Ghaffary, Shirin. “Wall Street Doesn't Care about the Facebook Leaks. Mark Zuckerberg Does.” Vox, Vox, 26 Oct. 2021, www.vox.com/recode/2021/10/25/22745835/wall-street-facebook-mark-zuckerberg-frances-haugen-earnings-reputation-defense.
Heilweil, Rebecca. “Facebook Is Now Meta, but It's Not Quite a Metamorphosis.” Vox, Vox, 28 Oct. 2021, www.vox.com/recode/2021/10/28/22751315/facebook-meta-what-is-metaverse.
Horwitz, Jeff. “Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That's Exempt.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 13 Sept. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-files-xcheck-zuckerberg-elite-rules-11631541353?mod=article_inline.
Horwitz, Jeff. “The Facebook Whistleblower, Frances Haugen, Says She Wants to Fix the Company, Not Harm It.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 3 Oct. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-says-she-wants-to-fix-the-company-not-harm-it-11633304122.
Knueven, Liz. “Mark Zuckerberg's Net Worth Has Grown over $40 Billion in the Last Year Alone. Here's How the 36-Year-Old Facebook CEO Makes and Spends His $114 Billion Fortune.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 Apr. 2021, www.businessinsider.com/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-net-worth-priscilla-chan-2017-10.
Murgia, Madhumita. “Why Facebook Has Become Meta.” Subscribe to Read | Financial Times, Financial Times, 29 Oct. 2021, www.ft.com/content/29762a96-419f-41b2-9e96-fa7423abb125.
Purnell, Newley, and Jeff Horwitz. “Facebook Services Are Used to Spread Religious Hatred in India, Internal Documents Show.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 23 Oct. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-services-are-used-to-spread-religious-hatred-in-india-internal-documents-show-11635016354?mod=article_inline.
“Revealed: 50 Million Facebook Profiles Harvested for Cambridge Analytica in Major Data Breach.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Mar. 2018, www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election.
Robertson, Adi, and Jay Peters. “What Is the Metaverse, and Do I Have to Care?” The Verge, The Verge, 4 Oct. 2021, www.theverge.com/22701104/metaverse-explained-fortnite-roblox-facebook-horizon.
Scheck, Justin, et al. “Facebook Employees Flag Drug Cartels and Human Traffickers. The Company's Response Is Weak, Documents Show.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 16 Sept. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-drug-cartels-human-traffickers-response-is-weak-documents-11631812953?mod=article_inline.
Seetharaman, Deepa, et al. “Facebook Says AI Will Clean Up the Platform. Its Own Engineers Have Doubts.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 17 Oct. 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-ai-enforce-rules-engineers-doubtful-artificial-intelligence-11634338184?mod=article_inline.
Smith, Matthew. “How Facebook Is Failing Myanmar Again.” Time, Time, 18 Aug. 2020, time.com/5880118/myanmar-rohingya-genocide-facebook-gambia/.