The past five years have been phenomenally good for Facebook’s bottomline. Its market cap has nearly tripled since November 2016. In the most recent quarter, Facebook’s profit grew 17% to $9.19 billion.
However, from a public relations standpoint, the years since 2016 have been difficult for Facebook, as its business practices have been scrutinised the world over. The recent release of a trove of whistleblower documents, dubbed the Facebook Papers, was so damaging that the company was forced to rebrand itself by creating Meta Platforms, Inc. as a new corporate entity.
For years, many have raised concerns about the potential of social media to sow discord. But because of the spectacular growth in their size and influence, tech companies have been able to fend off virtually all regulation of the industry. But calls for regulation of social media companies such as Facebook intensified in the United States (US) in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections, when the world got a glimpse of their destructive potential.
In the run-up to the polls, Facebook was used by groups both within and outside the US to smear Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. At the time, the company blamed it on a bunch of pro-Donald Trump bad actors, saying that they manipulated the platform unbeknown to its employees and executives. The impression the company created was that Facebook was caught off-guard much like the rest of the world.
However, documents leaked recently by whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified before the US Congress and British parliament, paint a different picture. The Facebook Papers revealed that the company was aware of the spread of misinformation and hate content worldwide, from Vietnam and Myanmar to India and the US.
But its top executives, in the words of the Washington Post, “ignored warnings from its employees about the risks of their design decisions and exposed vulnerable communities around the world to a cocktail of dangerous content”. According to the paper, one of the more than a dozen news outlets that investigated Facebook, weighed “trade-offs between public safety and their own bottomline”.
India is Facebook’s largest market and it has not been impervious to Facebook’s attempt at a balancing act between profits and some concern for the public good. Research shows that Facebook has been used as a vehicle for misinformation, hate speech and encouragement of violence in India.
The absence of regulation, or minimal regulations, makes social media the modern-day Wild West. Many activists have complained that the largely unregulated social media ecosystem is having a corrosive effect on democracies around the world.
In any other field or industry, corporations are held responsible for actions or inaction. In this case, until now, Facebook has not received even a slap on its wrist. It is operating in a field where the rules of the game are not spelled out. The company can collect data from Americans, Indians and citizens from all other nations where it operates, and sell or use them to make a profit in whatever way it deems fit.
The Facebook Papers, which were complemented by reportage from more than a dozen news outlets, shows that the problem is systemic. They also highlighted a business culture that puts profit over people and values.
Over the past few weeks, privacy advocates, political activists and legislators in the US and Britain have called for governmental regulations to ensure that social media platforms are not used to spread misinformation and hate. These calls need to be heard.
Waiting for Facebook and other social media companies to fix the problem is a mistake. Governments, especially the US government, need to be proactive since strong action by the US, the home of Facebook and other social media and tech giants, will have a worldwide impact.
In the US, it appears there will be regulations but, to date, the Congress has not been able to draft a law that will protect the privacy of Americans and prevent its misuse by miscreants. In India, there are attempts at regulation too.
These are positive signs. Effective governmental regulations will teach Facebook a lesson.