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Times are tough for Facebook right now. In September, the Wall Street Journal released a series of articles dubbed the Facebook Files. In those, they share data coming from leaked internal documents showing that Facebook is well aware of what they’re doing and that the platform holds an unhealthy amount of power. 

Ever since the firm has been trying to get a hold of the stories weaved around them amid global concern over their social media network.

What’s in the Facebook files?

A former employee of Facebook, who later identified herself as Frances Haugen, leaked an array of internal Facebook documents (research reports, online employee discussions, drafts of presentations for senior management). 

If there’s one thing all these papers have in common, it’s that whenever Facebook had nefarious effects (either on mental health or people’s safety), the company was fully aware of it. One particular sentence that stood out, was when someone wondered in a company memo how they could “leverage playdates” to drive more kids to their products.

The Wall Street Journal split its series into 6 initial articles, showcasing different sides of Facebook’s mismanagement of important issues.

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

The first one reveals that although Facebook always said there was no preferential treatment on their platform, high-profile accounts were exempted from some (or all) of its rules. Elite users could post unauthorized content (like when the soccer player Neymar showed revenge porn during a live) without being sanctioned for it. Some Facebook employees charged with taking down such content even mentioned not being able to delete offensive content when it was posted by famous accounts.

The second article, and the one that created the biggest outrage, mentions how studies led by Facebook showed that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) is harmful to young users, especially teenage girls. This triggered a reaction from US officials and drove the whistleblower to testify before Congress.

The third story is about how Facebook’s algorithm is designed to reward hateful behavior. In 2018, the platform made some changes to its algorithm to try and boost user engagement. However, employees soon found out that it drove users to be angrier. The documents show that Zuckerberg resisted the fixes proposed by the team, afraid it would lead to a decrease in interactions. 

The next one is a terrifying dive on how Facebook became a tool for drug cartels and human traffickers, used to lure women into abusive employment situations. Even when employees and victims brought up the issue, the company didn’t do much. As a matter of fact, when the BBC produced a documentary on the subject and shared their findings with Facebook, asking them to take preventive measures to protect their users from human trafficking, nothing happened. It was only when the BBC brought up the subject to Apple, which then subsequently threatened to kick Facebook out of its App Store that Facebook started to make some changes.

The fifth article is about how even though Facebook once stated that promoting Covid-19 vaccines was “a top company priority”, it clearly didn’t work out as planned with the platform being filled with “barrier to vaccination” content instead. 

The final story highlights Facebook’s obsession with younger users and their focus on getting “tweens” to use their products.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The whistleblower unmasked

As soon as they became public, the Facebook Files drew international attention. A lot of it was focused on the protection of young users. Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who acquired the documents before she left the firm, was invited to testify in front of the American Congress on October 5th.

Although she brought to light several issues happening within the social media, Haugen said that she “wants to fix the company, not harm it”. She spent the day answering questions about the inner workings of Facebook and the harm it causes, especially to younger users.

Now, the question is whether this will finally trigger the passing of actual legislation to act on these issues. During the hearing, Senator Ed Markey did express his stance on the subject by addressing Facebook’s CEO directly: “Here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens is over. Congress will be taking action. You can work with us or not work with us, but we will not allow your company to harm our children and our families, and our democracies any longer. Thank you, Ms. Haugen. We will act.

But the story won’t stop at the US borders. Haugen is already scheduled to testify in front of the UK parliament and the European parliament. There’s no doubt that the Facebook Files are a global issue.

Haugen is giving more leverage to former Facebook whistleblower

Frances Haugen’s claims about Facebook drove more attention to a previous whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, whose accusations stayed under the radar when she first spoke up. Zhang worked as a data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team before being terminated in 2020. She claims that her firing was due to “her prioritizing eradicating civic fake engagement over management orders”.

Haugen’s documents showed that Facebook is not a stranger to turning a blind eye to disinformation as long as it doesn’t impact its profits. When Zhang came to her superior with the information that thousands of fake pages were promoting Honduras’ president on the verge of a reelection considered fraudulent by many,  she was told that Facebook would focus on campaigns from “the US/Western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc.”

During her hearing with the British Parliament on October 18th, Zhang implied that Facebook’s involvement in dealing with fraudulent behavior on its platform depends on the importance of the country to the company’s bottom line. 

Her testimony joins the one of Haugen, who said to the US Senate Commerce subcommittee that “Facebook is prioritizing profit over people”.

How did Facebook react?

Facebook’s first reaction to the leaking of inside documents was to annotate some of them and share them again in their newsroom. These slides only concern the story about the negative impact of Instagram on young users’ mental health. The other issues mentioned by the WSJ have not been officially addressed by Facebook.

It took a few more days for Zuckerberg to acknowledge the situation publicly. He took to his personal Facebook page to say that “at the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted. Many of the claims don’t make any sense.”

In the meantime, Instagram announced that they were putting their Instagram for kids project on hold for now. Sensing that the public may not be very open to this product at the moment. 

However, Zuckerberg did try to shift some of the responsibilities on elected officials. Stating that “I don’t believe private companies should make all of the decisions on their own. That’s why we have advocated for updated internet regulations for several years now. I have testified in Congress multiple times and asked them to update these regulations.”

This seems to be their new plan going forward since they launched a marketing campaign on the subject a few weeks later. The dedicated website includes video interviews of Facebook employees showcasing their family pictures while talking about the need for new internet regulations. 

This leads us to believe that Facebook will wait for official legislation before enacting any big change to its platform, no matter how many scandals get in the way.

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

What does the future hold for Facebook?

All in all, the blue app’s future doesn’t look too bright right now. Which is probably why Facebook (the company) changed its name to Meta. Just like Google did with the creation of Alphabet, Facebook will use a new name for its operation (Meta), the name Facebook will now only be the one of the social media app instead of the whole corporation.

A new name is just the last thing on the list of issues Facebook is dealing with. In September, Facebook admitted to a trust deficit just ahead of the launch of their digital wallet. Meanwhile, they are trying to get the FTC antitrust lawsuit, the one accusing them of holding a monopoly in the social network market, dismissed.

Simultaneously, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has fined Facebook £50.5 million for breaching an order imposed by the CMA over Facebook’s purchase of Giphy. Indeed, the buying of Giphy by the social media giant was considered as anti-competitive behavior, leading the CMA to ask Meta to sell Giphy

The CMA is saying that Facebook is “consciously refusing to report all the required information”. It is even officially stated that “the CMA considers that Facebook’s failure to comply was deliberate”. Not a good look for the Californian company.

Moreover, in October 2021, Maria Ressa, a Filipina journalist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in exposing “abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism”. How does that connect to Facebook? She’s always been very vocal about the devastating impact Facebook poses for the political structures of many countries, stating that “Facebook broke democracy in many countries around the world, including in mine”.

She has been denouncing the platform for years, even more so when the rampant misinformation that runs free on the social media was weaponized by political groups to sway an election in her country. In August 2016, she brought her findings to Facebook, whose employees were appropriately alarmed. Nothing changed. 

Meta’s critics are getting bigger and more reputable platforms to openly condemn the social media firm. They’re consistently showing the impact Facebook and Instagram have on real life, and the devastating consequences they can generate.

What does it mean for advertising on the platform?

All these very public issues are driving a lot of unwanted attention towards Facebook. It’s also not helping the fact that Facebook is currently struggling with the aftermath of Apple’s ATT. The launch of the privacy feature helped Apple thrive and nibble away some of Facebook’s market share.

Apple’s AppTrackingTransparency framework is especially damaging to Facebook because the social network heavily relies on accessing and tracking consumers’ data through third-party apps. 

Facebook’s VP of Product Marketing, Graham Mudd stated that he was aware of the impact of ATT on advertisers and that they’d “heard from many of you that the impact on your advertising investment has been greater than you expected”. The costs of generating an ad campaign have also increased for a lot of advertisers and it’s gotten harder to measure the impact of iOS campaigns on Facebook. 

Facebook had already warned that Apple’s ATT impacts would be greater in the third quarter than the second. The social media platform is currently working on an internal solution, like pushing advertisers to use its own conversions API or use geo-testing by zip code or market (which won’t require user tracking).

According to AdExchanger, Facebook advertisers have reduced their spending by about 30%. Optimization campaigns are running slower now, a big change from the quick and efficient ad platform that made Facebook’s success.

Photo by Roman Martyniuk on Unsplash

Mudd did offer some solutions for advertisers

  • Don’t rush your performance analysis (wait at least 72 hours) 
  • Consider Facebook’s tools like their conversions API
  • Don’t be afraid of testing new creatives and marketing strategies

The Facebook brand is looking at some rough days ahead, but a company with this much power and resources probably has what it takes to survive. However, between the new privacy frenzy of the mobile world and all the scandals hitting the firm, it’s a good time to remind yourself that you should never put all of your eggs in one basket.

As we’ve said before, in this era of privacy, it’s important to rely on first-party data. Get to know your audience, once you do you’ll know where to find them. Facebook’s data may not be the most reliable for now, but there’s a lot of other platforms that exist and can help you spread the word about your app. For example, TikTok is still going strong, especially for mobile games and younger audiences. You can still rely on Google or YouTube and its new tools for user acquisition, and ASO can still help you make the most of app stores without having to rely on a company that is struggling to retain an aging audience.

What do you think is going to happen in Facebook’s future? Do you think the social media platform can still reinvent itself? Tell us in the comments!

Marine Nozerand

Hi there, I'm Marine (she/her), I'm a Content Manager at Apptamin. Apptamin is a creative agency specialized in app videos (video ads, app store videos, etc.).
Marine Nozerand

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