Is there any way to fix Facebook?

fix facebook

On a recent episode of The Marketing Companion podcast, I had a wee bit of a breakdown. I’m so tired of hearing about Facebook’s endless and deeply disturbing problems that I don’t even want to talk about it any more!

Facebook has been in crisis mode since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. Still, the company that started as a dorm-room project and now has more than 3.5 billion people using at least one of its apps monthly has proved to be financially resilient with a market value not far from $1 trillion.

But now thousands of pages of internal documents provided to Congress by former employee Frances Haugen depict a company where data on the harms it causes are abundant and solutions are ignored.

The papers reveal that even Facebook’s own employees agonize over the fact that its central algorithms reward outrage, hatred, and viral clickbait, while its content moderation systems are deeply inadequate. Haugen claims Facebook is “stuck in a feedback loop that they can’t get out of.”

Backed into a corner with hard evidence from the leaked documents, Facebook has doubled down defending its choices rather than fixing its problems. A name change, promises of a metaverse, and aggressive advertising are meant to distract us from the issue. Meanwhile, the company has shed nearly $200 billion in market value in less than eight weeks, as investors flee from the imploding enterprise.

And yet … in our marketing world, Facebook is an essential daily utility for much of the profession. Facebook ads are the very heartbeat of many businesses today.

In all of this mess, is there any way to fix Facebook? Let’s figure that out today … but I have to warn you, it’s not pretty.

The network effect

Shortly after my Facebook podcast rant, I absorbed an excellent HBR article called The Facebook Trap by Dr. Andy Wu. Here’s a summary of the main points:

  • Facebook’s business model is driven by a network effect. The more people who use it, the more valuable it is.
  • This network is driven in two ways. The first is when people on Facebook find their own friends and interests. These user-generated connections are organic.
  • The second method is algorithmic growth. Facebook grows much faster if it speeds the process through algorithms that suggest people, organizations, and groups to follow. This heavy hand is necessary to allow indirect connections that create intense engagement.

Intense connections mean more engagement, more time on site, more ad views. The efficient algorithmic engine drives business growth but also drives intense controversy.

Dr. Wu explains that the primary issue gets down to this: Within this network effect, what is Facebook actually accountable to fix?

Which network can fix Facebook?

Focusing on the nature of the networks provides a framework of what Facebook can reasonably be held accountable for. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present easy solutions.

If Facebook inserts itself and disrupts connections that people want to freely join — even if it is distasteful or controversial — it could be seen as censorship.

Adjusting a Facebook algorithm to stop encouraging people to join conspiracy/hate groups is within their control, but ruins their business model based on “intense connections” that make the most money.

When Facebook became a public company in 2012, I wrote a post predicting it would become the most dangerous company on earth, and perhaps I was right. The primary resource used by the company is our personal information. As a public company, it is on a mission to increase profits every quarter, without excuse, without exception, forever. The only way Facebook can do that is to leverage our personal information in riskier ways. Disaster seems inevitable.

Facebook cannot be a successful public company and also provide ethical algorithmic guidance, which explains why Zuckerberg has buried these issues — every time — until he gets caught.

So what can be done to fix Facebook? Dr. Wu suggests a few areas where progress can be made:

1. Transparency

The documents released by the whistleblower show how Facebook must be more transparent about the fundamental tradeoffs that come with a free social network. By freely releasing research that documents issues like body image and Instagram, the insights can guide regulators and put Facebook in a better position to move regulation in a favorable direction for the industry and consumers.

Regulation is inevitable. Facebook needs to stop resisting it and help the process.

2. Ramp up moderation

As of 2020, Facebook employed 15,000 human moderators to view hundreds of content items daily, but it needs many more, especially in non-English-speaking countries. To fix Facebook this will cost billions of dollars, and, perhaps more painfully, force it to decide what content to restrict: curating for one person is censoring another.

Avoiding this investment in moderation resources and technology is the primary reason Facebook is in the mess it is in today.

3. Be accountable

Facebook needs clear boundaries on which aspects of its platform it wants to — and can be — accountable for, and clearly delegate accountability to governments, independent agencies, and users where it doesn’t today.

On algorithm-originated connections, it will be impractical to delegate accountability on what is often a black box process — and this technology is a core piece of intellectual property for Facebook — so Facebook needs to be ready to take responsibility for what connections their algorithm promotes.

But to fix Facebook, it needs to go further …

Dr. Wu is a faculty member of both Harvard and The University of Pennsylvania. There are probably lines of decorum and controversy he cannot reasonably cross.

But I can.

Nothing is going to change within the toxic Facebook/Meta company culture without a change at the top. So let’s say what needs to be said …

4. Eject Zuckerberg

The ultimate and final responsibility for this state of affairs rests with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who holds dictatorial power over the company.

Any change at Facebook has to start with the ejection of Mark Zuckerberg. Many years ago when the company was being investigated for who knows what, a Zuckerberg email emerged where he claimed that he can be “unethical without breaking the law.” I’m convinced that is still his personal code for running Facebook. In fact, he’s proved it.

But Zuckerberg has an ironclad hold on Facebook. He owns the majority of the company’s voting shares, controls its board of directors, and has increasingly surrounded himself with executives who don’t appear to question his vision.

In the name change announced last week, Zuckerberg affirmed that he intends to be the face of his company’s past, present, and future.

But he has so far been unable to address stagnating user growth and shrinking engagement. Employee morale is in a freefall. The company is losing the attention of its most important demographic — teenagers and young people — with no clear path to gaining it back, its own documents reveal.

Facebook under Zuckerberg seems to only do the right thing after it gets caught. That is no way to run a company but unfortunately, Facebook’s long-term demise will continue until it loses so much value that they have no choice but to find a way to pull the plug on its CEO.

5. Hold the algorithms accountable

Zuckerberg has long hidden behind an argument that Facebook is not a publisher. The content, true or false, is coming from other people, so how can Facebook be responsible for that?

But he cannot dismiss the impact of his algorithms as a distribution network for enabling and promoting hate and falsehoods. It’s like this: What if the Ku Klux Klan were meeting in the Facebook cafeteria? He would put an end to it because the company is enabling hate, even if it is not actually causing the hate.

But Facebook won’t address this because provoking hate is good for business.

People engage more when they see content that enrages or misleads them. This helps explain why low-quality, outrage-baiting, hyper-partisan publishers do so well on the platform.

As reported in Wired, one internal document from September 2020 notes that “low integrity Pages” get most of their followers through News Feed recommendations. Another recounts a 2019 experiment in which Facebook researchers created a dummy account, named Carol, and had it follow Donald Trump and a few conservative publishers. Within days the platform was encouraging Carol to join QAnon groups.

A presentation from April 2020 notes that Facebook algorithms were reducing graphic violence by just 19 percent, nudity and pornography by about 17 percent, and hate speech by about 1 percent. In a file from March 2021, company researchers estimate “that we may take action as little as 3-5% of hate and ~0.6% of [violence and incitement] on Facebook.”

Facebook must be held legally accountable for the lack of effectiveness of its algorithms. Haugen and others have recommended the idea of public representatives to oversee Facebook from the inside, similar to Federal Reserve examiners for large banks.

6. Take the company private

I agree with Dr. Wu that there really is no solution to this very complicated problem as long as Facebook is a public company.

So what if it wasn’t a public company? What if it was taken private?

This is a big and crazy idea but I don’t see any way Facebook can emerge as a sustainable and ethical company as long as it has to make quarterly growth objectives to please Wall Street.

In 2013, Dell Founder Michael Dell took the company private. He explained that the company had to reinvent itself away from the pressures of Wall Street earnings expectations. Five years later, the company was publicly traded again but it had been completely overhauled and reimagined for the digital age.

Would it be possible for Facebook to go underground for a few years to right the ship? Maybe what emerges is a smaller company with different revenue streams and a new vision to connect people in a way that is responsible.

I realize this is a VERY complicated scenario. But how else can the company be reinvented?

7. Introduce subscriptions

When Ev Williams founded the blogging site Medium, he moved it to a subscription model. At the time, he admitted that an ad-based model drives all the wrong behaviors. If Medium depended on ad revenue, it would lead to decisions to elevate hateful and controversial content that drives time on site and ad revenue … like Facebook.

As long as you have an ad-based business model, conspiracies, hate, and controversy will drive the business.

In its current form, Facebook would never offer ad-free subscriptions because it reduces ad views, revenue, and growth. A subscription-based model would depend on delivering quality and value instead of controversy. That would take time, and it might not be possible as a public company (see point 6 above!).

Conclusion: Can we fix Facebook?

In short, there is no scenario to fix Facebook in its current form, even with legislation. As long as the current leadership, culture, and business model are in place, the company will simply morph into even more imaginative and destructive modes of operation.

I don’t think it has to be this way! I wonder what Facebook would be like if it were run by a brand like Disney or Apple or Patagonia? I don’t think the mess Facebook is in had to be inevitable. It is a product of corrupt intent. If the corrupt intent can be removed — as a start — I think there is hope.

The company is betting its future on the virtual reality of the metaverse. But there will be more than one metaverse. Will there be a Google version? Amazon? Apple?

The Facebook version of this alternate reality will simply be an extension of the unethical practices we see from the company culture today. In fact, it might even get worse as employees trying to fight for ethical practices leave at a more rapid pace.

And of course, this is not just a Facebook problem.

Social media will continue to destroy trust, harm individuals, and jeopardize important democratic institutions unless we elevate a bold dialogue on radical solutions.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.

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