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12 October 2021

In 2021, social media companies are essentially immune to criticism – and they know it

Despite shocking headlines, nothing seems to turn the public against social platforms. Is this bad news overload or successful PR strategy?

By Sarah Manavis

It happens every year now. A Facebook executive sits down in front of government officials, who immediately make it clear that they are out of touch by asking completely clueless questions. The video usually goes viral. It happened in 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica scandal when Mark Zuckerberg was forced to answer how Facebook makes money (“Senator, we run ads”). It happened in 2020 when members of Congress used official hearings to air their personal grievances with certain users. And it happened two weeks ago, when one Senator asked Facebook’s head of global safety, Antigone Davis, if Facebook would “commit to ending ‘finsta’.”

The joke, for those above 30, is that “finsta” is not a functionality of Instagram (Instagram being one of Facebook’s platforms, alongside Messenger and WhatsApp) but a slang term for when young people create a second, unpolished account just for close friends (it’s short for “fake Insta”). The clip of this question began to take off on Twitter the day after the hearing of 30 September, and had a second lease of life on 4 October, when Facebook and all of its platforms shut down due to a technical issue for around six hours.

[See also: How do you solve a problem like Facebook?]

This alone was enough to make Facebook the main character for the week. But sandwiched between these two events was another headline-grabber: that a whistleblower – ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen – had given internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal. Referred to as the “Facebook Files”, they showed that Facebook knows Instagram can harm teenage girls’ mental health, that drug cartels use its platforms, that the algorithm serves up objectionable content to drive engagement, and that elite profiles are given more leeway than the average user. 

These details – and the huge media fanfare over their release, Haugen’s appearance in Congress in the days following it, and an upcoming appearance announced in the UK parliament – should have meant that Haugen’s testimony dominated the news over the last week. But instead, it has barely touched the public consciousness; appearing on news sites, but failing to cut through to most people, despite how shocking the revelations are. 

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You may wonder: how have we become so jaded? Our muted reactions to these stories are familiar by now. We thought social media companies were bad, but actually it turns out they’re even worse. We tell ourselves that we can only sustain our shock for so long and that this is why we’re numb to new revelations of how corrupt and knowingly harmful social platforms are. But is this simply just a case of bad news overload? Or could it also be a successful PR strategy?

It would be pointless to engage seriously with the measures that social media companies – particularly Facebook – have introduced to feign self-scrutiny. Facebook’s Oversight Board, an external committee meant to hold the company accountable and make rulings on company decisions, has more than once come to the conclusion that they can’t make a decision at all. Facebook belatedly began to ban anti-vaccine content after it thrived on the platform for years, and Twitter only banned Donald Trump after the attack on the US Capitol. These gestures are essentially meaningless and do little to self-regulate these platforms, but are effective at diluting public outrage. 

[See also: Why Facebook has designs on your face]

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Since Cambridge Analytica – arguably the only time Facebook received genuine backlash for its corruption – Facebook has staged increasingly public self-interventions. When bad news comes, the company makes a melodramatic apology, and announces a review process that sounds time-consuming and expensive.

This disarms the public, ensuring the reaction is no longer “Facebook isn’t doing anything” but “Facebook isn’t doing the right thing” or “Facebook isn’t doing enough”. These messages are less potent and drive far less change. Understandably, people tune out.

Even during a mass outage of its platforms, Facebook appeared to take this approach. While most users were flooding on to other platforms to complain about Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp not working during those hours, journalists and political figures were, rightly, using the moment to highlight the issues with one company owning four out of five of the biggest social media platforms. Indeed, you might expect the outage to increase public pressure to break up or regulate Facebook. That is, if the exact same thing hadn’t happened in March: an outage, with subsequent criticism and warning about Facebook’s influence, with Facebook going to great lengths to talk about its technical failings rather than monopolistic status, which was then largely forgotten in the space of a few weeks. Even when criticisms are loud, Facebook covers its ears and repeats the same noncommittal lines. It works. 

[See also: How Facebook’s outage more than doubled interest in Twitter]

Facebook also benefits from those viral videos of congressional hearings. Despite the “finsta” gaffe, technology reporters who actually sat through the rest of the hearing widely found it to have been productive, touching on major issues such as Facebook’s profit incentives around drawing in younger users and the problems with child safety across its various platforms. But most people missed all that. Embarrassing blunders overshadow any progress being made, encouraging even more apathetic responses from the public. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, to the relief of the platforms under the spotlight. 

Whistleblower Frances Haugen’s story, alongside the Facebook outage, could have been a perfect story to grab the attention of those who can make real political interventions. Speaking to journalists on 4 October, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Haugen’s revelations confirmed concerns around the power social media platforms have amassed and made it clear that “self-regulation isn’t working”.

But that was over a week ago, and already the news cycle has moved on. Haugen’s appearance in parliament on 25 October may help drag this story back into the limelight, but even if it does, Facebook has weathered bigger storms. Why should we expect anything to come of it?

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