A plea to Facebook: Everyone knows you’re villains. Just embrace it

By Joe Berkowitz

September 22, 2021

A bombshell exposé in the New York Times this week, picking up from where last week’s bombshell Wall Street Journal exposé left off, reveals a trove of details about Facebook’s aggressive new PR initiative: Project Amplify. Cooked up at an internal meeting in January, this gambit involves reining in the company’s tendency to apologize on a semi-regular basis—for violating user privacy, spreading misinformation and promoting hate speech—while also pushing pro-Facebook media directly onto users’ feeds. While it’s commendable that Facebook appears to realize its apologies have long since become rote and meaningless, the company betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s supposed to happen after one stops apologizing for their behavior. Typically, in such a position, one would either quietly commit to sweeping positive changes . . . or embrace villainy outright. Given Facebook’s track record, along with many of its current positions, the latter is clearly the more suitable path for the company.

In other words, it’s time for Facebook’s public-facing side to go as dark as its private side.

This past July 4, many online were alternately delighted and baffled by a video of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hydrofoil-surfing on a board lanced with an American flag. As it turns out, this video represents one aspect of the Project Amplify strategy: a push to present Zuckerberg in contexts other than Senate committee hearings or blog posts admitting to heinous corporate behavior. In addition to emphasizing the CEO’s scandal-free quirkiness, the mission also entails running ads that link out to pro-Facebook articles, obscuring access to internal data for outside researchers, and shelving an unflattering report on its most popular posts.

The irony of this strategy! Facebook’s executives now seem to understand that being exposed to certain kinds of media enough through one’s Facebook feed significantly influences people’s perception of the subject? And, furthermore, they appear to think it’s worth stepping in to control the flow of media when said media pertains to the platform itself, but are only selectively inclined to assert control when it has to do with, say, misinformation around the 2020 election or COVID vaccines? Facebook’s self-preservation instincts unmistakably surpass the company’s desire to help preserve democracy or public safety.

Take, for instance, how the company handled that internal report this year on the most popular posts for the first three months of 2021. Facebook initially buried the report after the policy communications team discovered the most popular post for that period was a story that suggested a doctor had died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. According to a New York Times review of internal emails, upon receiving this information, the company shelved the report because it was spooked about an uproar over Facebook contributing to vaccine hesitancy. However, nowhere is there any indication that Facebook was equally concerned with, you know, actually contributing to vaccine hesitancy. Like every other element of Project Amplify, this reaction helps clarify where Facebook’s priorities lay.

But if the ultimate goal is repairing Facebook’s reputation, the company needn’t bother. That ship has long since sailed.

With the ruthlessness of seasoned criminals and the power of a Supreme Court, Facebook is essentially the Death Star of social media platforms. And much like the Trump campaign in 2020—which Facebook greatly assisted—the company might as well embrace such comparisons. If hearing about Facebook’s profound ethical shortcomings didn’t scare users off, it’s doubtful that moving with supervillain swagger would do the trick.

It’s not as though Facebook had successfully managed to maintain goodwill among its users before now. A 2020 national tech survey by The Verge found that 72% of Americans thinks Facebook has too much power, that 25% think Facebook has a negative impact on society, and that Facebook is the least trusted of all major tech brands with user information. The cat’s out of the bag! There will always be another extremely unflattering story about Facebook’s indefensible actions, there will always be another politician trying in vain to rein them in, and there will always be people who still enjoy looking at pictures of their family and rsvp-ing to events. All players involved are destined to remain at this impasse until the moment when either Facebook shuts down or people move on. Whichever comes first.

In the meantime, trying to pretend that people “love” Facebook instead of merely tolerating it, and that the company is concerned with anything other than its ongoing dominance, is a total farce. They might as well just take off the mask.

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