The rebranding of Facebook’s parent company that also owns WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, Giphy and the VR brand Oculus would have been scheduled for some time. Yet pushing the name change to Meta (deliberately not hashtagged here) right now is widely perceived as a poorly masked attempt to distract from the devastating testimony by whistleblower Frances Haugen.
As expected, this has led to a flood of critical comments. Even the name choice is being mocked. As Protonmail tweeted: “Collecting more user data to get better at user data collection was already pretty meta.” Anyway, let’s forget the metaverse for a while.
Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the stunning revelations in 2018 about a sophisticated scheme of micro-targeting voters that enabled Donald Trump's 2016 election win, the brand has taken one PR hit after the other. Now evidence is mounting that this social media behemoth is more concerned about protecting its “astronomical” profits than anything else. Facebook is accused of mishandling political misinformation, hate speech and the promotion of ethnic violence, teenage mental health, human trafficking and its communications with investors. These are serious allegations, many of which are reminiscent of the worst traits of NewsCorp, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire that also gains from ‘enragement means engagement’.
Facebook of course insists it is not a newsroom. But as many experts have pointed out, they are, just without journalists. At this stage, any responsible leader would have come out with a strong commitment to greater transparency and a significant investment in public safety and health. But as Haugen stated in one of the hearings: “Safety is a cost center, not a growth center.” It appears that this persuaded Mark Zuckerberg to place his bets on this old-school PR maneuver.
Much of the current debate is centered on possible government action. Elizabeth Warren who ran for US president in 2020,had vowed to break up Facebook, Amazon and Google if elected. So what will the Biden administration, the European Parliament and other nation states do?Another important yet less discussed question is how the public and private sector should respond to Facebook’s conduct and series of public relations crises.
With roughly 2.89 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the world. Roughly 90 percent of all users are based outside North America. India alone has some 310 million users; more than the US, which accounts for 190 to 200 million. The third largest user base comes from Indonesia (140 million). It is hard to imagine a mass exodus any time soon. But brand loyalty should never be taken for granted.
The Middle East and Africa used to be the network’s fastest-growing region. But months before the whistleblower spoke up, Facebook was already facing a reputation crisis in the Arab world. Approval rates and ad sales plunged to new lows when Facebook and its various apps were seen as silencing pro-Palestinian voices during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict. NBC News reported that Facebook’s ad sales in the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq dropped at least 12 percent in the ten days after May 7.
Haugen’s highly persuasive disclosures are still unfolding as more media outlets and analysts go through the Facebook Papers and more hearings are being scheduled. That may lead to an even steeper drop of company shares and Facebook’s reputation in the coming weeks while corporate and public scrutiny increases. At some point CEO’s may find it hard to look at their brand’s logo so closely placed under the Facebook brand. The greater spotlight on hate speech and misinformation may also motivate more users to finally abandon the app.
If that is not enough to rethink how to protect an organization from ‘guilty by association’, then what is? It would certainly make sense to plan ahead and look for alternatives. Whether or not that is going to happen depends on the line of business, the kind of leadership and level of organizational ethics, plus the shareholder response. The association may at first seem less problematic for some consumer companies, especially outside the US, but it could become really awkward if not toxic for government entities, NGOs, utilities, telcos, banks and other professional organizations. It is going to be interesting to see which players will take the lead in unfriending the platform.
Facebook played a key role in connecting the world but now it must work on regaining the world's trust. Mega, not Meta-trust, that is.