All through the thousands of pages of hacked Facebook papers, an uneasy refrain from the company’s own employees can be heard: “Something must be done.”
The records show that senior executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, were aware of the possibility for real-world harms from Facebook’s multiple platforms — such as amplifying hate speech, fostering eating disorders in minors, and inciting violence — but did nothing about it.
There’s little in the findings that bodes well for Mark Zuckerberg, the 37-year-old creator who grew Facebook from a dorm room experiment to a nearly trillion-dollar corporation by following the credo “move fast and break things.” Activists, commentators, and lawmakers are calling on Zuckerberg to take responsibility — after all, the fish rots from the head down. Holding Zuckerberg accountable, on the other hand, is a lot easier said than done.
For its part, Facebook has reacted angrily to many of the media allegations, claiming that they are inaccurate and misrepresent its research and activities. On Monday, Zuckerberg attempted to recast the so-called Facebook Papers as a “organized effort to selectively utilize leaked documents to present a false picture of our firm” during an earnings call.
On Monday, Zuckerberg attempted to recast the so-called Facebook Papers as a “organized effort to selectively utilize leaked documents to present a false picture of our firm” during an earnings call.
Because of Facebook’s tiered stock structure, removing Zuckerberg is nearly difficult. Despite owning less than half of the company’s capital, Zuckerberg’s class of shares has far more voting power than common shares.
That means Zuckerberg owns a majority of the voting stock in the corporation. Zuckerberg would be able to get his way even if the board and every investor united against him.
Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook employee, told Time earlier this month, “He’s a king, not a CEO.”
On Monday, Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, told UK legislators that Zuckerberg’s powerful position at the helm of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp gives him “unilateral control over 3 billion people.”
And, in any case, shareholders are unlikely to object. Despite its flaws, Facebook has made them extremely wealthy. Despite trailing major rivals Apple and Google in terms of stock price, Facebook has gained roughly 75% since October 2019.
On Friday, a group of 17 US news organizations began publishing “The Facebook Papers,” a collection of hundreds of internal company documents that were included in SEC filings and presented to Congress in redacted form by Haugen’s legal counsel.
As stinging headlines based on the Facebook Papers swept throughout the internet, Wall Street shrugged Monday. However, Facebook’s stock slumped 4% on Tuesday after the company reported profits that fell short of analysts’ estimates for sales. Dollars and cents are all that matters to investors.
Deadlock in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, lawmakers have been playing catch-up in an attempt to regulate a company that has eluded government scrutiny. Several pieces of bipartisan antitrust legislation targeting Big Tech have been introduced in the House. But, according to Haugen, Facebook’s structure is unique among tech companies.
“Any independent researcher can download the company’s search results from the Internet and write papers about what they find at other large tech companies like Google,” Haugen told Congress earlier this month. “However, Facebook hides behind walls that prevent researchers and regulators from fully comprehending the system’s true dynamics.”
In other words, it’s a complicated problem that would be difficult to solve even if Congress wasn’t hampered by internal bickering.
The antitrust case is also taking its time. A federal judge dismissed the Federal Trade Commission’s case that Facebook was a monopoly this summer, citing a lack of evidence. The FTC filed a new complaint, and Facebook filed another move to dismiss the matter earlier this month.
Some have recommended forming a completely new regulatory agency devoted solely to the IT industry’s behemoths.
“Digital industries complain (with some justification) that existing regulation, with its strict norms, is incompatible with rapid technological changes,” Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, writes. “Digital platform oversight should not be an afterthought for an existing agency, but rather a full-time specialized focus.”
In the past, tech leaders, including Zuckerberg, have expressed interest in the idea. It’s easy to say yes to a hypothetical, of course. And it isn’t universally accepted.
While Facebook may support external regulation, “it is fighting that regulation tooth and nail, day and night, with armies of lawyers and millions of dollars in lobbying,” according to Senator Richard Blumenthal. “Facebook’s claim that it wants regulation is the height of deception.”
Advertisers can’t afford to abandon their campaigns.
Advertising agencies can’t afford to abandon their campaigns.
A boycott of the site could earn big advertisers PR points, but it’s unlikely to make a significant dent in Facebook’s bottom line. Because small businesses can’t afford to leave, the vast majority of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from them.
Hundreds of well-known brands boycotted the platform in the summer of 2020 due to its handling of hate speech in the #StopHateforProfit campaign. Since then, however, Facebook’s stock price and ad revenue have only increased.
During the third quarter alone, Facebook generated almost $28 billion in ad revenue. That’s a 33% increase over a year earlier.
Are there any developments afoot?
The Facebook Papers include some of the most devastating evidence that Facebook is directly responsible for real-world harm. Worse, it has been disregarding the consequences for years.
This one, more than any of the company’s prior crises, feels like a watershed moment. However, there will be no quick or easy conclusion to this crisis.
If the whistleblower’s documents teach us anything, it’s that certain employees, including Haugen, have legitimate concerns, and that multiple whistleblowers are coming forward to keep the pressure on the corporation. However, it’s uncertain if that would be sufficient on its own.
Washington will not be able to overcome the regulatory difficulties overnight, and Wall Street will not abandon a money-making machine. The 3 billion individuals who use Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, for example, are unlikely to switch them off on principle. For many, those apps have become indispensable communication tools, almost as important as the internet itself.
In the meantime, the firm will continue to promote its own narrative and dismiss criticism, and it may even work on resolving the issues. However, given Facebook’s size — and its track record of avoiding regulation while raking in cash for its stockholders — a full-fledged investigation seemed improbable.