More sinned against than sinning - Facebook's pity party fails to convince

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 26, 2021 Audio mode
Poor, poor us! Why is everyone painting a false picture of Facebook? Hmm...where to begin?


A co-ordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.

As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen gave evidence to UK Government legislators about her former employer’s alleged business practice, the howl of self pity from CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the other side of the Atlantic could practically be heard in the corridors of the British House of Commons.

Among Haugen’s latest revelations via thousands of pages of internal documentation were a number of particular political relevance to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee hearing, including:

  • Internal Facebook employee anger at the response to the US Capitol riots in January from the firm’s CTO who advised staff, “Hang in there everyone”.
  • The disclosure that Facebook set up 'war rooms' to monitor election posts, but placed countries into 'tiers' of priority in terms of how much resource was put behind them.
  • An allegation that Zuckerberg buckled to right-wing pundits and publishers and that he “personally decided” to censor Vietnam's anti-government dissidents at the request of the government there.

And there’s more political strife to come, warned Haugen:

I have no doubt that the events we are seeing around the world, like in Myanmar and Ethiopia, those are the opening chapters because engagement-based ranking does two things. One, it prioritises and amplifies divisive, polarising and extreme content, and, two, it concentrates it.

Asked by one legislator if Facebook was evil or malevolent, Haugen spoke in terms of what she called a “pattern of inadequacy”:

I cannot see into the hearts of men but I do believe there is a pattern of inadequacy that Facebook is unwilling to acknowledge its own power. It believes in a world of flatness which hides the difference, like children are not adults. They believe in flatness, won’t accept the consequences of their actions and, so, I think that is negligence and ignorance, but I can’t see into their hearts, so I don’t want to consider it malevolent.

Poor, poor me

Actually paranoid might a term that some would consider more appropriate to Zuckerberg’s comments later, when he complained:

Good criticism helps us get better, but my view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.

Nobody understands how hard Facebook’s job is, was the underlying theme:

When we make decisions, we need to balance competing social equities. Like free expression with reducing harmful content or enabling strong encrypted privacy with supporting law enforcement or enabling research and interoperability with blocking down data as much as possible. It makes a good soundbite to say that we don't solve these impossible trade-offs because we're just focused on making money. But the reality is these questions are not primarily about our business, but about balancing different difficult social values. 

Of course there was another airing for the by-now overly-familiar complaint that Facebook shouldn’t be left to manage itself:

We believe that our systems are the most effective at reducing harmful content across the industry, and I think that any honest accounts of how we handle these issues should include that. I also think that any honest account should be clear that these issues aren't primarily about social media.

That means that no matter what Facebook does, we're never going to solve them on our own. For example, polarization started rising in the US before I was born. At the same, independent research shows that many countries around the world have flat or declining polarization despite similar social media use there than in the US. We've seen this pattern repeat with other issues as well.

The reality is if social media is not the main driver of these issues, then probably can't fix them by itself either. We should want every other company in our industry to make the investment and achieve the results that we have. I worry about the incentives that we are creating for other companies to be as introspective as we have been.

And there was one last brave stab at blaming commentators on Facebook and a vague attempt to clamber onto what passes for a moral high ground at the firm:

We can't change the underlying media dynamics. But there is a different constituency that we serve that has always been more important and then I try to keep us focused and that's people.

How does Zuckerberg ‘serve’ that people constituency? The answer to that, inevitably, took the form of a lengthy plug for Facebook Reels and the Metaverse.

Rotten Apple

Apple was also in Facebook’s sights again yesterday following the privacy changes that firm made to protect consumers from unwanted and intrusive advertising. This has hurt Facebook in what seems to be the worst possible way - it’s cost it money! As COO Sheryl Sandberg complained:

We've been open about the fact that there were headwinds coming and we've experienced that in Q3. The biggest is the impact of Apple iOS 14 changes, which has created headwinds for others in the industry as well, major challenges for small businesses, and advantaged Apple's own advertising business. We started to see that impact in Q2, but adoption on the consumer side ramped up by late June, so it hit critical mass in Q3.

As a result, we've encountered two challenges. One is that the accuracy of our ads targeting decreased, which increased the cost of driving outcomes for our advertisers. And the other is that measuring those outcomes became more difficult. Overall, if it wasn't for Apple's iOS 14 changes, we would have seen positive quarter-over-quarter revenue growth. And while we and our advertisers will continue to feel the effect of these changes in future quarters, we will continue working hard to mitigate them.

My take

Just to put Sandberg’s complaint in context, Facebook yesterday turned in a quarterly profit of $9 billion on revenue of $29.01 billion, up from $21.47 billion this time last year, so any sympathy you are unlikely to feel for this outrageous pressure imposed by Apple and its darn consumer protection ideas might need to be tempered accordingly.

The other thing to note - on the post results analyst call, not one of the participants from Wall Street - not one! - questioned Zuck and Sandberg on the allegations from Haugen or the investigations in both Europe and Washington. You might almost think that so long as Facebook turns in $29 billion quarters, what price giving a damn about how that money’s being earned?

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