Thursday, December 8

Metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg’s worst month and a half | Economy

It is no wonder that Mark Zuckerberg has thrown himself into the arms of the virtual world this week, given how things are going in the real world. From now on, he will be the president of Meta, an anodyne name to indicate the company’s journey to the abstraction of the metaverse, a promised land where to connect with yours in augmented reality. Hopefully, the news that has cornered your company for a month and a half does not reach there, the worst month and a half in its history, its particular season in hell. The announcement, which will affect rather little the 3.6 billion users of Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, applications that keep the name, is a somewhat clumsy way, judging by how it has been received, to face accusations as serious as that Zuckerberg preferred to silence opposition groups in Vietnam rather than lose business in a succulent market, that he fueled Narendra Modi’s nationalist hatred in India or that he did not do enough to stop the anti-vaccine hoaxes.

Those revelations, to name just a few of those known this week, come from the thousands of internal documents pulled out of the company by Frances Haugen, the deep Throat of Facebook, who has gone in a short time from anonymously unemployed from Silicon Valley (she left technology in May) to testify last Monday before the British Parliament, as she did before in the United States Senate. Lawmakers summoned her to Capitol Hill alarmed by the first leaks, which began in September in The Wall Street Journal and they were obtained “after two and a half years” of working with employees of the social network, by journalist Jeff Horwitz, who has just signed an editorial contract to tell his story.

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The second wave came with the simultaneous publication in 17 journalistic companies of the Facebook papers, The last ace Haugen had up his sleeve, an unusual mix of civil liberties messiah and media master. The revelations began on October 22, after several weeks of work. Technology reporters who regularly compete with each other shared information on a Slack channel about the tens of thousands of documents that the former employee took with her. Journalists are accessing that material in a redacted version, prepared by the lawyers of the deep Throat to introduce senators in Washington, who seem united for the first time beyond polarization in their intention to regulate the operation of social media.

Every day new evidence of Facebook’s malpractice is revealed (in a torrent of such dimensions that it threatens to cauterize the outrage of public opinion). At first, it was learned that Zuckerberg was aware that his lucrative inventions affect the mental health of adolescents, that they monetize anger and fuel hatred in users, and that they offer comfortable scenarios for organized crime. With the entry into the scene of the rest of the media, the stories of how the company preferred to look the other way before the evidence of its destabilizing capacity in places like Poland, whose far-right parties have benefited for years from the “hate algorithm” piled up of the technology; Myanmar, where Facebook tolerated incitement to the genocide of the Rohingya minority, or Washington. Few doubt that the robbers on the Capitol used the social network with impunity to organize the attack on American democracy.

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Internal documents often paint a picture in which employees play the role of the canary who warns in the mine of a danger systematically ignored by his superiors. One of those workers warned in March of this year that “comments that doubt the efficacy of vaccines circulate uncontrollably” and that if the ability to detect them in English is “bad”, it is practically non-existent in other languages. Facebook did nothing about it … until this week, when it introduced a mechanism that penalizes those messages. And it did not do so despite the fact that the lagged vaccination in the United States is a problem that comes from afar and despite the fact that Joe Biden came to accuse the platform in July “of killing people.”

Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park (California), which yesterday sported the new Meta logo instead of the traditional thumbs-up that made the social network famous.
Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park (California), which yesterday sported the new Meta logo instead of the traditional thumbs-up that made the social network famous.JOHN G. MABANGLO (EFE)

The papers have also served to learn about Facebook’s experiments in sociology. In 2019, two employees of the platform created a fictitious profile of a 21-year-old user in India, with its 1.38 billion inhabitants, its most important market. The innocent content that his wall began offering the newcomer soon turned into a flood of violence, misinformation and toxic speeches. A few months later, in another experiment, a researcher invented a woman from Wilmington, North Carolina, who declared herself a Christian and began to follow Donald Trump and the Fox News network. Her name was Carol Smith (and it’s tempting to think that it was all an homage to the German conservative thinker Carl Schmitt). It took two days for the platform to propose to join groups related to QAnon, a social movement bordering on Trumpism that encourages savage conspiracy theories.

Since the storm started, Facebook has employed various defense strategies. They have tried to discredit Haugen by claiming that he did not work directly on the issues addressed in the documents. They have also resorted to the old tactic of killing the messenger: according to Zuckerberg, the work of the consortium of journalists is “a coordinated effort to selectively use the leaked documents to paint a false image of the company.” They have even tried to make a virtue of necessity. If the deep throat could be done with all that information it is because the culture of the company is based on internal transparency: when Haugen made the decision to pull the blanket he only had to go into a virtual space shared by 60,000 workers to take photos with your mobile from all those reports and internal messages.

The decision to change its name cannot, however, be an impromptu response to this phenomenal crisis. If the technology company has invested only this year 10 billion dollars (8,650 million euros; Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for a billion) in its conversion into Meta, it is partly due to the fact that its products are losing their footing among the users of that strip that goes from adolescence to early youth. The kind of users who, thanks to video games, don’t need an instruction manual to understand the concept of the metaverse. Yes, they were born into the Facebook era (which Zuckerberg founded at Harvard University 17 years ago), but since entering the Age of Discernment they only attend, from Cambridge Analytica to Frances Haugen, a reputational debacle for the company behind it. other. In addition, they have shown a predilection for other environments, such as Tik Tok or Snapchat.

If the company does not reverse that trend, it will enter into what analyst Alex Heath, who this Thursday interviewed Zuckerberg in The Verge, calls “a self-sustaining decline, due to the aging Facebook population.” A different case is Wall Street, which on Monday announced that the technology revenues grew by 35% in the third quarter of the year, to 29,000 million dollars, with a profit of 9,200 million, 17% more than in the same period of 2020.

When a few days before the good economic news it became known that Facebook was going to change its name, it was inevitable to think about when Google reorganized its forces in 2015 and renamed itself Alphabet. Its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, left the front line four years later. It doesn’t seem like Zuckerberg plans to go down that path. “He still believes in his mission; connect people ”, explains to EL PAÍS by email veteran Silicon Valley chronicler Steven Levy, editor of the magazine Wired, and author of the book Facebook: The Inside Story (2020). To write it, he had “unprecedented access to the company,” and had numerous interviews with its founder. “After the research, I was acutely aware that this obsession with user growth and retention opened a dangerous field for toxic and divisive content. What has surprised me about the latest revelations is how well documented these flaws were and how much Facebook hid them from the public. “

This policy of concealment is history. Haugen’s intention is to make the archives accessible to everyone in a few weeks. Perhaps then they will pay attention to that employee who, according to Facebook papers, he wrote a few days after the assault on the Capitol in an internal forum of the technology a phrase worthy of the best screenwriter: “No, history will not judge us kindly.”

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