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Facebook Knows Its Reckoning Is at Hand—and It Isn’t Ready

Image via The Verge

Facebook’s fundamental issues are as numerous as they are well-known. Posts on the platform played a key role in the January 6 Capitol Insurrection by helping to spread misinformation around the 2020 election.  According to internal research, Instagram, a major subsidiary of Facebook, produces detrimental effects on the mental health of teenage girls. Facebook has shared users’ data with other major tech companies, such as Spotify and Netflix, without their consent. Whistleblower leaks indicate that the worst of the abuses are yet to be revealed. Compromising information has been revealed about the company through whistleblower leaks from Francis Haugen and others, as well as from the “Facebook Papers,” a series of internal Facebook documents revealing compromising information Facebook had previously kept hidden. The company’s recent actions, ranging from rebranding to shift the conversation and bolstering the company’s defense teams, demonstrate their knowledge of impending legal challenges. Though Facebook has escaped legal battles in the past largely unscathed, this time feels different; nothing Facebook can do at this point can stop it from the legal consequences it may face. Democrats are upset with the company over disinformation; Republicans are upset about censorship. Facebook has managed the impossible: uniting Democrats and Republicans in opposition to a common enemy, an enemy they may soon attack with the full force of antitrust law in order to begin to dismantle Facebook’s social media monopoly. 

Facebook has survived Congressional inquiries and criminal investigations in the past. In 2019, the company came under investigation for its data-sharing practices with other major tech corporations. This controversy came after another 2018 investigation into Facebook’s unlawful sharing of the data of millions of users with the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which used the data to aid Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg first testified before Congress in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, promising greater privacy and transparency while also denying that Facebook sells user data directly to advertisers. While technically true, the company nevertheless profits off users’ data via targeted advertising based on demographic information. From its frame of reference, Facebook has weathered the storm for the majority of its decade-and-a-half existence, but for almost everyone else—the public and the government—these issues are still relatively new and far from resolved. 

After Haugen’s explosive and revealing testimony before Congress, Zuckerberg has faced bipartisan demands to answer for his company’s policies. Republicans take aim at Facebook and other big tech companies over perceived censorship and the deplatforming of prominent conservatives, most notably President Trump. Democrats focus on Facebook’s failure to stop the spread of disinformation, particularly in the realms of health and the 2020 election. Bipartisan consensus is extremely rare, but though their reasons differ, Facebook has made the potentially fatal mistake of making enemies on both sides of the aisle.

In an October 29 letter sent to the Department of Justice, the American Economic Liberties Project called on the DOJ, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trading Commission to investigate Facebook for five alleged criminal violations: “inflation of video metrics,” “inflation of advertising reach,” “securities fraud,” “lying to Congress,” and “insider trading.” As David Dayen of the American Prospect notes, these issues are well-known and distinct from information revealed by Haugen and other leaks. On the issue of “inflation of video metrics,” Dayen notes that advertisers have previously leveled such accusations and that Facebook’s policy of counting what amounts to mistaken clicks as video views, thus misrepresenting their video metrics to advertisers and failing to address the issue. Dayen also distinguishes these actions from issues such as a failure to stop disinformation and negligence towards the mental health impacts of Instagram, which he writes are “sideshows in relation to Facebook’s pretty well-demonstrated efforts to lie and cheat and rig markets for profit.” Such an investigation could lead to actual punishments for Facebook, possibly ranging from serious fines to criminal sanctions to a breakup of the company, punishments it has thus far avoided. 

In October, Washington, DC attorney general Karl Ravine named Zuckerberg as a defendant in a complaint related to the Cambridge Analytica data leak, marking the first time he has been named in a complaint. The company is facing increasing scrutiny after operatives from Myanmar’s military used the platform to incite genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), dedicated to investigating the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, has worked with Facebook previously and seeks even more information from the company. The company has appealed requests in US courts for internal documents regarding its own investigations of its role in the Rohingya genocide, demonstrating the ongoing legal battle the company faces in the US and abroad over its possible role in the genocide. In October, the company settled a lawsuit accusing the company of discriminating against US workers in favor of those on foreign visas. Facebook has thus faced attacks on practically all fronts in both criminal and civil forms.

Facebook’s greatest threat, however, takes the form of antitrust lawsuits. On August 19th, the FTC filed a revised complaint in the US District Court for the District of Columbia accusing Facebook of violating antitrust law by attempting to “buy or bury” competing apps, using its financial might and dominance in the social media sphere to eliminate competition, rather than relying on innovation. The complaint reads: “Central to Facebook’s efforts to “derisk” the transition to mobile was its strategy to buy or bury innovators threatening to out-compete Facebook in the new mobile environment.” Facebook has subsequently called for the case to be dismissed; the FTC’s initial complaint was dismissed, resulting in the August filing of a revised complaint. This time, however, Facebook faces another related challenge: yet another antitrust suit filed by the developers of now-defunct photo app Phhhoto, one of the companies named in the FTC’s complaint. According to the developers, Facebook reached out about a deal yet ensured one never materialized while using other products such as Instagram to compete with Phhhoto. This combination of antitrust suits come at a time when Facebook is already facing significantly heightened scrutiny, creating a climate where aggressive actions against the company seem possible.

Action against Facebook may also be politically expedient for Congress, a prospect Facebook itself is preparing for. According to an October report from Politico, Facebook and other tech companies are hiring a number of former Washington staffers and tech policy experts, possibly in response to antitrust suits and possible House antitrust action. Combined with whistleblower testimony, leaked documents, and calls for political investigations, antitrust suits pose an existential threat to Facebook as it currently exists. 

Facebook rebranded in an effort to shift the conversation away from its misdeeds, changing its corporate name to Meta. Zuckerberg described it as a shift of emphasis towards the “metaverse,” which involves Meta’s various subsidiaries like Oculus and focuses on the world of virtual reality, in an interview with Alex Heath of The Verge. In that same interview, he explicitly denied using the rebranding as a distraction, saying, “I think the current [news] cycle clearly had nothing to bear on this. Even though I think some people might want to make that connection, I think that’s sort of a ridiculous thing. If anything, I think that this is not the environment that you would want to introduce a new brand in.” Despite what Zuckerberg himself may say, these are all transparent attempts to regain some semblance of control over the narrative surrounding Meta. Zuckerberg wants to portray himself as a pioneer in the cutting-edge world of virtual reality while simultaneously humanizing himself, rather than acknowledging what he truly is: a billionaire with an incomprehensibly massive net worth whose product has fundamentally altered society—and not necessarily for the better. In a stroke of irony amidst antitrust lawsuits, Meta is buying up companies in the world of VR to bolster its own strength. The company seemingly hopes that a purely aesthetic change will be enough to fend off the negative energy it is facing, a belief that is fundamentally misguided and detestably callous. Meta has no interest in acknowledging its wrongdoings; it simply wants to do whatever it can to get people to stop talking about them.  Facebook—or Meta (the moniker is unimportant)—has survived scrutiny in the past, but this time seems different. Amidst whistleblower complaints and leaked documents, Facebook is beset by problematic stories coming from seemingly every angle. The company’s reputation was far from sparkling to begin with; recent revelations have only made the situation worse. The rebrand to Meta was not met with positive public response: In a poll by SightX, 39 percent of respondents attributed the name change to public image and 37 percent to the company’s recent leaks. Multiple industry experts similarly suggested that the rebrand was a meager effort to deflect criticism.

All of this works to create a climate ripe for tangible action against Facebook, which could happen soon. The combination of antitrust lawsuits itself could be enough to lead to changes. Even if those fail, the lawsuits and public outrage could spur the government to action against Facebook. It’s not clear exactly what would happen to the company, but a breakup of Meta into its subsidiaries with Instagram, Whatsapp, and others being taken out from under the Facebook umbrella seems tangible. Circumstances could call for payment of damages or, pending criminal investigations and the release of more information, actual criminal charges against the company and its leaders. The only certainty is that the pressure on Facebook will intensify as more and more people call for action against the company—and that the company’s efforts to reshape the narrative won’t be enough to protect them from the reckoning they brought upon themselves.