Problems confronting Facebook will not be easy to overcome

Published : 07 Dec 2021 09:07 PM | Updated : 07 Dec 2021 09:07 PM

Facebook CEO Ma­rk Zu­cker­berg announced on 28 October that Facebook Inc. had been “rebranded” as Meta Platforms Inc. — Meta for short. Analysts from around the world were quick to point out that this was a desperate effort on the part of that institution to move away from all the scandals that have hammered the company’s reputation of late in the United States.

It would be worth noting here that nearly 2.7 billion of Facebook’s 2.9 billion users live outside the United States. It has also come to the surface that many among them due to misuse in the handling of the dynamic by Facebook have had to face suffering through online harassment, violence, depression and other mental issues.

The situation in Myanmar, where 23 million residents are on Facebook, appears to have deteriorated since 2017 because of the manner in which their military used Facebook to organize a genocidal campaign against the nation’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group.  Human rights campaigners have since 2018 been blaming this anti-Rohingya propaganda for having incited murders, acts of violence and rape that eventually led to the largest forced human migration in recent history. A United Nations probe has since estimated that thousands of Rohingya had been killed due to this and that more than 700,000 had fled to Bangladesh. When the International Court of Justice held an inquiry into this Rohingya “cleansing campaign,” Facebook acknowledged that it had warehoused records of the officials behind the campaign but did not agree to provide information on the activities carried out from their accounts.

Facebook appears to have been plagued by seemingly endless 

scandals in recent times. Consequently, many experts believe 

that the company’s major rebranding announcement could end 

up being yet another failure for the social media juggernaut

Similarly, in Nigeria, where there are nearly 30 million Facebook users, this platform has for years allowed constant displays of hate speech that activists say directly incited ethnic cleansing campaigns that have killed thousands. Nairobi human-right activist Berhan Taye has recently mentioned to The Guardian that despite years of complaints about toxic Facebook content — including videos of raw child abuse — little progress had been made. “They’re not willing to invest in human rights, invest in resources, and in languages that are not making them money,” Taye said. Very sad indeed!

In similar terms, Maria Ressa, latest Nobel Peace Prize winner has pointed out that in the Philippines, where 76 million residents use Facebook, that institution was principally responsible for the erosion of democracy under President Rodrigo Duterte. In severe terms, she asserted that “Facebook’s algorithms prioritize the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts.” It has also been hinted that thousands of people accused of being drug dealers had been killed in that country by vigilantes during their extrajudicial war on drugs, many of them having been targeted on Facebook.

It has since appeared that Facebook has admitted that in many nations, Facebook has made mistakes- but they have asserted that it was not intentional.

This has however not been the beginning and the end of the story.

One may recall that in 2014, Facebook faced yet another major backlash after it was revealed it had secretly carried out psychological tests on almost 700,000 unwitting users back in 2012. In 2016 it also landed in hot water after censoring a number of images and videos including a famous Vietnam War picture and clips of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and ‘Big risk’. The platform has also been accused of spreading mass misinformation in the lead-up to the 2016 US election. In 2017 it was also revealed that hundreds of likely Russian fake Facebook accounts allegedly spent around US Dollar 125,000 on ads during the election campaign.

It would also be pertinent at this point to remember that in 2019, NBC News obtained and released thousands of pages of leaked internal documents which revealed Facebook’s plan to grow more-powerful, including an alleged strategy of using users’ data as a bargaining tool to wield against rivals and help out allies. In 2018, it was also rocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved the selling of tens of millions of Facebook users’ personal data to political data firm Cambridge Analytica, without their consent, with the information later used to influence voter behavior during the 2016 US election (although the breach was not known at the time). Facebook was ultimately slapped with a $5 billion fine over the fiasco, which was the largest data scandal in its history.

The dynamic related to these discoveries have, most recently, also expanded in terms of dimension with a media reference whereby The New York Times has pointed out that Facebook officials have also felt completely overwhelmed in India, which has 340 million Facebook users, the most in the world, and 22 officially recognized languages. 

Facebook supposedly has very limited expertise to monitor its platform in that country based on just two languages. This shortfall is affecting its ability to control ethnic violence through the use of disinformation— against certain minority communities- which is on the rise.

Facebook appears to have been plagued by seemingly endless scandals in recent times. Consequently, many experts believe that the company’s major rebranding announcement could end up being yet another failure for the social media juggernaut.

It has also been pointed out that Facebook’s decision to change its company name to Meta not only reflects Facebook’s efforts towards transition away from being just a social media platform but also into transforming its major focus towards developing the metaverse. This has led its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to state that “over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we’re building toward.” This will be a good effort but many insiders believe it will not be enough to distance Facebook from the serious crises that it has faced in the recent years.Before proceeding further one needs to refer to some of the denotations and connotations that have subsequently led to some of the Facebook security breaches and the current turmoil pertaining to the activities of this Company. They include- (a) the linguistic inability to understand, and therefore moderate, millions of user posts in non-English speaking countries; (b) the incomprehension of their own algorithms and (c) their inaction when intervening where AI programs do not reach- the company apparently only takes action in 3% to 5% of cases of hate speech, and in 0.6% of posts with violent content. Their inability to address the online activity of the Trumpist followers on the eve of their assault on the Capitol before January 6 after the November 2020 US elections has also caused unrest within and against the company.

The Facebook scandals, it may be noted, emerged in a strong manner just weeks after whistleblower and former staff member Frances Haugen leaked the so-called “Facebook Papers” to the media and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and testified before the US Congress and before a Committee of the British Parliament, claiming Facebook put profits over people’s safety. She also shared a trove of internal documents alleging the firm knew its products were fuelling hate and harming children’s mental health.

This latest measure on the part of Facebook to rebrand itself is being treated with great caution by different analysts and experts. They have drawn attention to the osmotic failures that have taken place in the past during efforts to rebrand by other major companies. 

They have referred to the efforts in 2001 of British Petroleum by becoming Beyond Petroleum in a bid to downplay its fossil fuel interests. However it failed to bulk up its renewable energy efforts or its environmentally friendly practices. Later, its reputation was left in tatters after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which was one of the world’s notorious environmental disasters.

Another famous rebranding mistake was carried out by Tropicana orange juice in the US. In 2009, the company completely overhauled its iconic packaging – but did not plan on consumers failing to recognise the new-look cartons. As a result, sales were reduced by nearly 20 per cent, and the company was forced to revert to its original design. Similarly, private security company Blackwater rebranded first as Xe Services and then as Academi Training Centre Inc, after a 2007 incident in Iraq left 14 civilians dead. However, its inability to fix the reputational damage also doomed the rebrand, and the company closed in 2014.

The most infamous example has been the 2003 rebranding of the Philip Morris Cigarette Company to Altria, which completely failed to safeguard the firm’s other brands, such as Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing, from the harm caused by the tobacco industry. Branding Guru Allen Adamson, through the Washington Post has in fact used the Philip Morris example, which “backfired” for that business, and has cautioned that something similar might happen for Facebook.

Time has come for Facebook to study carefully recent developments after their emerging difficulties. They can gain fresh positive approval by assisting the world and recognizing that their platform can be a crucial partner in creating a circular economy that will be a significant component for a climate-neutral future. They can facilitate this process through the creation of an effective information transfer process across supply chains. This will then help producers, consumers and recyclers to adopt more circular, sustainable practices. Aligning itself with such ongoing green transition and digital transformation will restore its status as an important component within the international paradigm and gain required appreciation.

 Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance