Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will be going through a rebrand and henceforth be known as “Meta” amid a number of scandals and criticism. The Facebook Files of October 2021 were the last straw. Whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked thousands of documents showing that Meta was fueling hate speech on the platform, allowed right-wing extremists to organize through groups, and, among other problems, collaborated in censoring the media. This caused an outrage among the general public but didn’t come as a surprise. With a new brand and company identity, what has changed, what hasn’t, and what’s in store for social media users all over the world?
A new and “improved” platform
Meta describes itself as “the evolution of social connection”. It’s hard to deny Facebook’s role in shaping the modern media landscape so to see them rebranding in this direction makes sense. Apart from what they were working on before, Zuckerberg also announced that the company would focus on “the metaverse”.
The metaverse is a hypothesized version of the internet that uses 3D spaces for socialization, collaboration, and learning using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) among other technologies. It’s been compared to the Matrix or the OASIS from Ready Player One, neither of which (ironically) has a particularly positive outlook on the relationship between society and technology. Zuckerberg has big plans for the metaverse and it intends to be the face of this development, which has some interesting implications.
As a communication science student, I am not inclined to believe all of those negative things people say about social media: that it makes us anti-social, stunts our verbal and non-verbal communication skills, makes us hyper-focused on outward appearances to others, and about a hundred other things. I am also not inclined to believe that Facebook’s rebranding as Meta and its interests in the metaverse itself is a worrying development. What I am concerned about is the timing of these announcements. Perhaps if they had done this rebranding a few years before any of the controversies came to light, people (myself included) would be more intrigued by the company’s plans and would take a similar interest in this innovation.
At face value, it seems like Zuckerberg is interested in technological innovation and taking this concept of social connection to a new level but I don’t buy it. I was already sceptical of Facebook’s position in the media landscape after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and I was shocked by its role in the political turmoil that transpired from the US presidential election of 2016 and the Brexit vote. The manipulation of social media and its users for political and economic gain seems morally reprehensible, especially at the cost of people’s privacy, well-being and safety. And now, the Facebook Files is the final nail in the coffin.
Meta seems like a thinly veiled distraction, meant to keep the public focused on something other than multiple controversies, criticisms, and refusal to fix it. It seems like the company wants to change their image but how much do they want to change the foundations? As far as public opinion goes, this latest scandal only shows that big tech doesn’t care about anything except profit and they are willing to allow hate and violence to fester on their platform for it.
At this point, my trust in Meta is close to nothing. Not to mention they own two other prominent platforms we use, Instagram and WhatsApp, which makes it difficult to connect with others outside these platforms. A question arises, who’s to say similar suspicious practices do not take place on these platforms too? It’s a real concern if we think about what impact social media consumption has on people, even more so when we consider how it’s being manipulated to change our behaviour. If it were up to me, I’d be dropping Facebook as one of my social media but deleting only one and sticking with the others seems like a futile attempt to remove myself from the toxic and potentially dangerous environment. Likewise, I don’t know if I want to be completely disconnected from other people.
Now, not to be a massive pessimist and technological determinist, I do not think social media is entirely heading us towards the end of the world. There are still a lot of good things happening on social media and to say it’s one big mess diminishes the positive impacts it has too, like being able to stay in contact with faraway friends and family, dissemination of information, mobilizing people and more. I believe the key to ensuring a safer social media environment is to not completely lock yourself out of the internet, but, one, to practice media literacy by being critical of what you read and hear online and thus make well-informed judgements, and two, to hold these platforms to a higher standard.
Cover: Austin Distel
Edited By: Gaukhar Orkashbayeva