Facebook Faces the Media’s Existential Crisis

Facebook Whistle Blower Frances Haugen
Photo by Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
October 8, 2021

There are two ways of understanding Facebook’s most recent crisis, which stems from a series of damaging articles in The Wall Street Journal and a 60 Minutes interview with Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who leaked the internal research that led to those articles. The first, which has been nearly ubiquitous across digital media and cable news, is that Facebook is the rapacious, monstrous, Trump-buttressing, Myanmar-genocide-facilitating, teen-confidence-crippling brainchild of a boychik C.E.O. and his world-eating hot-or-not-derived website. And yes, this view has been popular. Vanity Fair noted that Facebook has entered “a new era of existential crisis.” CNN claims that Haugen is the company’s “worst nightmare.” USA Today reports that this may finally be Mark Zuckerberg‘s “moment of reckoning.” These views have been amplified across cable news with the shrill tones reminiscent of the Trump era.

But here is the second way to understand Facebook’s ordeal. It’s less popular, less hysterical, and much more accurate. Facebook is not facing an existential crisis, and Haugen is far from Facebook’s worst nightmare. In fact, she might even be Facebook’s near-ideal whistleblower. She does not want to break the company up (its actual worst nightmare), nor does she want to remove its Section 230 legal protections (she would like to tweak them). In fact, Haugen has been advocating for measures that Facebook, itself, has called for publicly, such as a new digital regulator to oversee social media firms in the same way that the F.C.C. oversees telecom and media. As any Facebook critic will tell you, such a move would likely solidify rather than diminish the tech giants’ power, since it would prevent future companies from reaching the clout that Facebook has already accumulated. On the policy front, it’s almost like she’s a plant.

Perhaps the most damaging blowback from this crisis has coalesced around a particular Journal piece headlined, Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, stemming from the research that Haugen funneled to the paper’s reporters. And yet this isn’t entirely true. The research itself actually showed that an overwhelming majority of teen girls reported that Instagram had no impact on their mental health or well-being issues, or made them feel better. For many, it was no different than what flipping through Cosmo or watching Beverly Hills 90210 had been generations earlier, with the exception that Facebook was far more sophisticated than Hearst or Fox in getting you to stay engaged with the content. “Researchers have worked for decades to tease out the relationship between teen media use and mental health,” NPR noted this week. “Although there is debate, they tend to agree that the evidence we’ve seen so far is complex, contradictory and ultimately inconclusive. That is equally true of Facebook’s internal marketing data, leaked by Haugen, as it is of the validated studies on the topic.” 

Zuckerberg and his deputies tried this week to offer a fuller picture of their internal data by making the research available and by pointing out that it was conducted for the very sake of improving people’s experiences on Facebook. “When it comes to young people’s health or well-being, every negative experience matters,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We have worked for years on industry-leading efforts to help people in these moments and I’m proud of the work we’ve done. We constantly use our research to improve this work further.”

Not surprisingly, Zuckerberg’s plea largely fell on deaf ears, a reality resulting from Facebook’s lack of credibility with the media. And so CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter went on air and confidently declared that Zuckerberg’s 1,300-word defense, citing the research’s actual findings and explaining where Haugen was wrong, “sounds hollow.” Time published a new cover asking readers in checkout aisles if they were ready to “Delete Facebook.” Pundit after pundit on cable news parroted Haugen’s argument comparing Facebook to Big Tobacco. To this, Stelter added: “at least tobacco companies didn’t undermine democracy”a cavalier quip that, again, doesn’t actually stand up to the research. (The Information was a refreshing outlier.)

Facebook does deserve criticism for its many sins, but the company’s relationship with the media has reached a dangerous inflection point that the Haugen crisis has magnified. Whether this is because Facebook is the platform that fueled (in part) Trump’s election, or because its ad business tore asunder (in part) the fabric of traditional media, Facebook has essentially replaced the former president as the preferred pinata du jour for the media, to the point where the coverage has gotten sloppy. 

The anti-Facebook position, in fact, is now as safe a space for reporters as the anti-Trump position. Many reporters start from the assumption that Facebook is harmful to society and that Zuckerberg is evil, and proceed from there. Any reporter who appears to be defending Facebook on any single point is likely to be labeled a shill by other reporters and face their own backlash. Those who level this charge often miss the ways in which their own anti-Facebook posture can make them shills for Facebook’s competitors and detractors. In any case, it’s hard to say anything that gives Facebook the benefit of the doubt and be taken seriously. “The problem now is that reporting anything that isn’t ‘Facebook is big tobacco’ is bad, even if it’s true,” one well respected tech reporter texted me this week. “This is hysteria.”

People are right to be concerned about social media’s influence on society and on people’s health; they’re equally right to be concerned about how the traditional media encourages them to interpret and misinterpret those issues. Perhaps this interminable cycle, where Facebook is repeatedly said to be facing an “existential crisis” is not only apocryphal but rather evidence of an existential crisis faced by the media itself—the crisis of cable news outlets and digital publications that traffic in drama and outrage to draw ratings and generate clicks, that prefer their reporter-pundits say something incendiary rather than informative. Ironically, it’s the same behavior that many say exists on Facebook. CNN’s coverage isn’t only hyperbolic; it’s playing the same game. The network is run by the man who made Trump a household name with The Apprentice and then hyped his campaign rallies throughout the 2016 Republican primary.

None of this will matter nearly so much as the aforementioned headlines would have you believe. Politically, Facebook is less of a threat than was revealed in 2016. The overwhelming majority of studies suggest that social media can have both positive and negative effects on democracy. Facebook has high penetration in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have had peaceful elections in the past two years. Financially, Facebook stock will almost certainly rebound, as it does after every public relations “crisis”; the company will continue to pursue new innovations and improve existing services; 3.5 billion people around the world will continue to use Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the six-hour outage earlier this week having only reinforced how integral it is to their lives. 

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg will face no reckoning: he cannot be removed by anyone but himself, and he has no desire to relinquish power because a former product manager revealed, shocker, that Facebook is a for-profit, growth-oriented company that seeks to keep users engaged with its product. Meanwhile, the Hill will feel emboldened to move slightly closer to implementing regulatory reforms that Facebook will be more than able to tolerate. And Haugen’s Section 230 tweak, a call to make social media companies legally liable for content they promote, is unlikely to come to pass, as engagement-based algorithms are precisely what make social media services so valuable to peopleincluding most of Facebook’s media critics, who you can follow on Instagram.