Do you remember when Facebook was fun?
I can’t say when or how I first heard about it. Probably from my kids, probably sometime in the mid-to-late 00s. It doesn’t feel like that long ago to me, but it was: when Facebook first launched, Youtube didn’t exist. Twitter was still four years out, and even then, it was designed around texting. Nobody had a newsfeed; if you heard something, you probably heard it from a friend directly rather than from a scrolling feed of updates. And in those early days of social media, Facebook was fun.
I was already in my forties by the time I joined, but it was fun to connect with friends from high school and college and old colleagues, see what they’d been up to, maybe reach out and say hello. It was fun to join random groups around random enthusiasm for fitness, or maybe specific restaurants, or other Knick fans. It wasn’t just harmless; it was banal. Keeping in touch with people you knew or tightening the bonds of family was why you were on the platform. If anything, Twitter was where you went for politics; it got a huge shot in the arm from the abortive 2008 protests in Tehran, which were largely organized and coordinated there. But the seeds of destruction were already present. By the time Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network hit theaters eleven years ago, Facebook already had five-hundred million users. Today, that number is inching up on three billion — and nobody is having fun.
The perfect storm afflicting Facebook at this moment, the triple threat of whistleblower, congressional investigation, and now the unearthing of a vast trove of documentation, published in the Wall Street Journal, demonstrating the company’s willful refusal to place real-life consequences at even an equal footing with its corporate interests, has been a long time coming. It’s a PR disaster of Facebook’s own design, the end result of seventeen years of seemingly deliberate malfeasance. We see in these documents, over and over again, Facebook refusing to act until its commercial interests were threatened. The example par excellence is a 2019 BBC report that Facebook knew about human trafficking carried out over its platform, but chose not to act until, following that report, Apple threatened to pull both Facebook and Instagram from the App Store. Only then, and with corporate records underlining the financial motivations behind the decision to move against these violations, was anything done. We see, further, repeated examples of Facebook employees raising profound ethical concerns with leadership only to be rebuffed.
I am a lifelong public relations expert, not a sociologist. But, were Facebook a client of mine, I too would find the sociological findings of the last few years enough to drive me to the edge. How Facebook has passively stood by while white supremacists organized, how the platform’s structure continues to fuel political radicalization and misinformation, how Instagram, a Facebook product, fuels deep body-issue images in young women and increasingly young men as well while actively seeking out those users — these aren’t issues messaging can massage. There is only so much PR can do in the face of a company actively making the lives of half the human population worse: more emotional damage, increased risk of physical harm, increased risk of suicide, the fragmentation of families — we’ve all seen it. Every one of us.
What troubles me the most isn’t just the extent to which Facebook still clearly understands this as an image problem than one of harm reduction; Zuckerberg is reportedly considering changing the name of the company (if likely not the product itself) as early as this week, the same way Google has technically been a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. since 2015, as if that will solve anything beyond negative associations around what is virtually certain to remain the name of its flagship product. Rather, it’s the fact that it isn’t actually costing them anything. Sure, they’re in a public relations inferno, but they still have billions of users whose eyeballs they sell to advertisers — advertisers who want access to the biggest public forum in the history of human civilization. We stay because it feels like we have little choice; Facebook is how an entire generation has been trained to maintain their social circles. It’s not that easy to walk away from, and Zuckerberg is banking that most of us won’t. So far, he’s not wrong. Further, he is reasonably confident that businesses around the globe not only won’t be willing to stop giving him their money in exchange for access to those billions, but that they too cannot.
No, the messaging problem here doesn’t belong to Facebook; it belongs to us. Social media demands regulation; the rapid corrosion of what was once the most stable democracy in the world and its political norms may not have originated with Zuckerberg, but he enables and profits off of it to the detriment of human society as a whole. The first time in American history one president refused to accede to the peaceful transfer of power, Facebook was there to amplify the claims and provide an organizing platform for an attempted self-coup. Our inability to disentangle from Facebook has deep, ongoing consequences which the company has never been shy about monetizing.
Something has to change, and perhaps that thing has to be us. I don’t know that we can cork this genie’s bottle, but we can and must demand better, and we can and must do better. If we can’t stop using Facebook en masse, we have to prioritize regulation as a political value: that we cannot and must not leave the regulation of public speech to private interests whose only aim is amassing their own bewildering wealth rather than maintaining a healthy society. Nothing will change until we do.