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The question Facebook won't answer

Facebook scrutiny

Good morning! This Friday, why Facebook keeps rolling out metaphors but never answers the bigger question about what it really is. Also: Tim Cook really loves AR, why iris scans might not be a great idea for payment authentication, and Sir Clive Sinclair has sadly passed away.

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The Big Story

Facebook is like...

What is Facebook? It's a question that's bedeviled the company's own executives for years, forcing them to use metaphors to paint flattering pictures of the social network as a force for good, despite its apparent faults and even when it's engulfed in scandal.

  • In 2014, Facebook likened itself to a chair in an infamous and widely mocked ad campaign. The company was suggesting social media gives everyone a seat at the table.
  • But these "Facebook is like…" comparisons are often trying to do the impossible by making sense of an entity too large and complex to boil down to phrases like "town square" or "global newspaper." They also feel like self-serving attempts to absolve the company of its responsibilities, both for the effects it has on the world and its role in helping clean up the mess.

Instagram chief Adam Mosseri tried a new metaphor to describe Facebook on Thursday: Social media platforms are like cars, he offered in a podcast interview with Recode's Peter Kafka.

  • "Cars have positive or negative outcomes... We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents. But by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. And I think social media is similar," Mosseri said.
  • Mosseri was specifically addressing a damning Wall Street Journal series, which this week detailed the company's internal quest to study and quantify the damage it does and the inaction of its leadership when faced with the findings.

Facebook likes to abstract itself from the problem by describing itself as a tool. It's a very common way for companies to position technology: After all, you can't blame Ford when a human driver accidentally veers into oncoming traffic; it's the human's fault for misusing the tool.

  • It's true social media, like the automobile, can't just be removed from society to solve related social ills. But it's bewildering Facebook still spends so much time trying to convince us social media is a net positive, treating it like a foregone conclusion instead of something deserving of rigorous scrutiny.
  • Mosseri's metaphor falls apart quickly, too. It draws comparisons to a highly regulated product with real and measurable tolls on society. Facebook, on the other hand, is an unchecked force that has spent much of its existence growing at all costs and then either stymying or hiding the results of internal research trying to measure its harm.
  • When challenged, Mosseri offered a more emphatic response to journalists on Twitter: "It's not possible to shut down all of social media. The more productive conversation is to look forward and ask how we can make it better."

Truth is, social media has plenty of benefits, and that's why it's frustrating Facebook wants us to think of its platform as a neutral utility. It's easy to forget that there are equal and perhaps more powerful mechanisms at play tearing societies apart, sowing division and spreading misinformation. Television news has been doing that for far longer than Facebook.

  • But Facebook, as a singular entity run by human beings, can change. In the absence of meaningful regulation, only its leaders, like Mosseri, are capable of making that happen, though they seem unwilling to make the hard decisions these systemic issues require of them.
  • Mosseri is right that, like cars, social media creates value. From helping give voice to marginalized groups to giving us a sense of digital identity and community we don't get offline, such connection is a social good worth preserving. But the image Facebook wants to present to the world doesn't line up with its actions, which reflect the company's desire to protect its growth and profit engines even in the face of persistent harm.
  • Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal published another story in its Facebook Files series detailing how the company's moderation efforts in developing countries lag far behind those in the U.S., despite dealing with issues as severe as human trafficking and drug cartel recruitement on the platform.

But Facebook will probably never truly define itself, not least because that would require its leadership to admit the platform can sometimes do more harm than good.

  • That isn't something they're very willing to do: "You want a simple black and white answer to a question that doesn't have one," Mosseri responded on Twitter when asked whether it was even possible to measure Instagram's potential harm.

Yet the question is still worth asking: What is Facebook? Is the platform a net positive on the world? Or an ad empire that either can't or won't acknowledge the totality of its effects on society? Facebook either doesn't know or doesn't want to know the answer. And it's certainly not telling us.

— Nick Statt (email | twitter)

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

Facebook supports updated regulations, including four areas where lawmakers can make quick progress:

  • Reforming Section 230
  • Preventing foreign interference of our elections
  • Passing federal privacy law
  • Setting rules that allow people to safely transfer data between services

People Are Talking

Digital privacy changes are going to make Google and Apple look a little different, Brave's Brendan Eich said:

  • "It will be a tale of two internets."

Apple didn't talk much about AR at its big product event, but Tim Cook is still a fan:

  • "I think AR is one of these very few profound technologies that we will look back on one day and [say], how did we live our lives without it?"

Apple also told employees it's keeping an eye on the abortion law in Texas:

  • "We want to remind you that our benefits at Apple are comprehensive, and that they allow our employees to travel out-of-state for medical care if it is unavailable in their home state."

Climate activist groups wrote a letter pressing tech CEOs to stand by their climate commitments:

  • "There is no time to waste in distancing yourself from these efforts."

On Protocol | Policy: Iris scans are more of a privacy issue than a convenience, said Access Now's Marwa Fatafta:

  • "In case that information is leaked, you can always change your password, but you can't change your biometric data."

Making Moves

Gogoro is getting SPAC'd. The battery-swapping startup is going public in a deal that values the company at over $2.3 billion.

Mark Nelson is T-Mobile's new EVP and general counsel. Nelson has been counsel to T-Mobile US for a couple of decades.

Nick Pacilio is taking up media relations at a16z. Pacilio most recently served as Twitter's senior communications manager.

Nate Chastain apparently left OpenSea. He was the company's head of product and was recently accused of a form of NFT insider trading.

Gunther Bright is joining McAfee's board. Bright is the EVP and general manager of global and U.S. large enterprises at American Express.

In Other News

  • Sir Clive Sinclair passed away at 81 years old. He was best known for popularizing the home computer and masterminded the ZX Spectrum.
  • Some Black creators are done with TikTok. Fed up with the app's content moderation, which some say is unfair and racially biased, they're turning to platforms like YouTube and The Cookout.
  • Facebook is cracking down on harmful coordinated groups. It has a new policy aimed at intentionally harmful networks that don't exactly qualify as "dangerous," and used the rule to shut down parts of a German online group.
  • On Protocol: Weibo is suspending users who speak out about a high-profile #MeToo case. The move can be traced back to China's internet regulators, who reportedly told an unidentified website to ban coverage of the case.
  • The chip shortage hit another company: Skoda Auto is stopping production at two domestic plants for a week at the end of the month.
  • General Motors extended a pause in production at one of its plants, too, but for a different reason: There's a battery pack shortage for its Chevy Bolt EV.

One More Thing

Discovering lost media

Have you ever tried to rewatch the whole of "The Bugs Bunny Show"? Or attempted to pull up an episode of Nickelodeon's "Back at the Barnyard"? Chances are you can't, because, well, a lot of that footage is lost.

An online community is trying to compile as much of that lost media as it can into an archive. So far it's uncovered everything from an English-dubbed anime version of "Anne of Green Gables" from the 80s to real-life recordings of events like concerts and interviews. But fair warning: This is a big rabbit hole, and if you go down it then you might lose this weekend entirely.

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

Protecting privacy means something different than it did in 1996—the last time comprehensive internet regulations were passed. We've introduced tools like Privacy Checkup that help people control their information. Now we need updated regulations to set consistent data protection standards.

Learn more

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