Facebook is now Meta, but critics say same old problems remain

Facebook officially launched its new name and corporate structure Thursday, one that focuses attention on where it sees its future while drawing attention away from its contentious present and past.

The Silicon Valley-based company hinted at its new corporate structure last week and again in its quarterly earnings call on Monday but officially unveiled what the metaverse-frenzy was all about at a virtual event on Thursday at which CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the new name: Meta

Originally coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, the metaverse has come to mean different things over the years, but they are all built around the same premise: a fully immersive virtual reality that has versions of everything you’d find in real life so you have little reason to ever leave it.

To Facebook, it’s the future.

Against a backdrop of digital avatars, Zuckerberg laid out a future world where friends not just game together across large distances but have their holograms attend in-person concerts together.

There are metaverse versions of work places and commerce, too, made possible by hardware devices such as the company’s Oculus VR headset and a new form of augmented reality glasses reminiscent of Google Glasses but styled like RayBans.

A lot in Facebook’s new metaverse is still years away, but the company makes it clear it is going all in on the concept already.

“We are fully committed to this,” Zuckerberg said. “It is the next chapter for our work and, we believe, for the internet overall.”

The metaverse is so central to the company’s future that it has reorganized its corporate structure to put its profitable social media products, namely, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, into one distinct business unit that exists within the Meta parent company.

Changing the channel

The new focus comes as the company finds itself deluged from all sides by criticism of how it conducts its core business. A former data science executive at Facebook blew the whistle on the company’s business practices last month, revealing details about its role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and other instances of the company seemingly prioritizing profit over safety and other considerations.

In a series of interviews with journalists and testimonies in front of governments around the world, Frances Haugen detailed how complicit the company’s social media networks are in spreading hate and misinformation around the world because it is good for their core business.

WATCH Frances Haugen blows the whistle on Facebook:

Former Facebook data scientist asks Congress to intervene in social media company’s actions

Former Facebook data scientist-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen urged U.S. lawmakers to intervene in the social media giant’s operations. Speaking before a Senate panel, Haugen outlined how Facebook knew its products and algorithms were steering users toward dangerous and toxic content, yet did nothing about it. 2:37

Company executives, including Zuckerberg, have dismissed her allegations as a “co-ordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.”

But despite those denials, Thursday’s event makes it clear the company is trying to turn the page.

Daniel Tsai, a lecturer on law and technology at the University of Toronto, says it will take more than a name change to fix what’s wrong with Facebook.

Visitors experience an immersive art installation titled Machine Hallucinations – Space: Metaverse at an art gallery in Hong Kong this month. While the term metaverse term means different things to different people and what exactly it means in the context of Facebook remains unclear. (Lam Yik/Bloomberg)

“There has to be new leaders at the top. They have to go and actually put in new plans that substantially change the way they use algorithms,” he said.

Proprietary computer programs that Facebook uses to decide what content gets shown to users based on how likely they are to stick around and engage with it will need a rethink, he said.

Haugen’s testimony to lawmakers suggests the company knows that content designed to produce a negative emotional reaction is more effective than other content, so, she alleges, they tacitly encourage it.

“They have to be transparent with the public and with government, as well to show that the algorithms are not there to do harm,” Tsai said. “And they also have to act in a way that’s transparent to the public in terms of how they’re using people’s data.”

The metaverse-themed name change has little to do with those sorts of changes and is “really a PR stunt,” he said.

Similar to other high-profile rebrands

Tsai says the ploy is not unlike those of other companies over the years that found themselves with an image problem and decided to change their name to turn the page.

“The comparison people are making with Facebook is it’s big tobacco or the new big tobacco,” he said. “I think that’s a fair assessment.”

The biggest tobacco company of all time, Philip Morris, tried something similar in 2003 when it rebranded as Altria.

Other industries have done the same. Accounting firm Arthur Andersen was one of the five biggest accounting firms in the world when it came to its end by signing off on the books at Enron — which carried out the biggest accounting fraud in American history.

The accounting portion of the business went bankrupt and was wound down, but the consulting side was launched under a new name: Accenture. 

Digital strategist Katrina German agrees that it will take a lot more than a new name to fix what’s wrong with Facebook.

“The thing that’s going to build trust is not a new name; it’s going to be meaningful action and actually doing things to ensure that they’re not harming people,” she said in an interview with CBC News.

“They’re definitely trying to sway public opinion and get people excited about their technology, [but] they have enough data and enough money and enough chance to experiment that they can be coming up with solutions to stop this problem.”

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