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09 November 2021 Bec Derrington

When it comes to social media, we all have a BFF. And in my case that bestie is definitely NOT Facebook, nor its younger cousin Instagram.

Call me old fashioned...or just plain old...but my platform of choice has always been Twitter. So when Facebook and Insta went down a month ago, but for #Facebookdown trending, I’d have been none the wiser.

But let’s forget about me. The bigger picture was the groundswell of anger and frustration felt by devotees of both services - the 2.89 billion active Facebook users, along with the 1.39 billion on Insta - who diligently doom scroll these platforms multiple times daily, and who suddenly had nowhere to share their latest selfie.

(Nicely played Jack!) 

And as if Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have enough to deal with having just endured the very public testimony of ex-employee Frances Haugen, who told the US Senate in early October that these social media platforms “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”

All in all, Mr Zuckerberg was having a rough trot. 

So when I asked some PR experts what they thought about the evolving crisis, they were united in their belief that Facebook had indeed lost some skin in recent months.

Director of Icon Reputation and former editor-in-chief of The AgeMark Forbes said: 

"Haugen’s allegations are seriously damaging for Facebook, both reputationally and commercially. This is a sophisticated and determined whistleblower campaign, begun with Wall St Journal series 60 Minutes, complaints to the SEC, testimony before the Senate and with planned international appearances to come.

"Her core claim, that Facebook puts profits before people by endangering users and modern democracy, is a serious challenge in this purpose-driven age.

"Facebook must be seen to be taking these claims seriously and taking action to address them. Reinstituting its Civic Integrity program would be a start, but an upfront mea culpa and promise of improvements from Mark Zuckerberg will be required - either to a chosen media outlet or the Senate inquiry.

"To get in front of the issue, Facebook could promise stronger safeguards and agree to a degree of regulatory control."

[Since Forbes made these comments, Haugen has indeed elaborated on these claims in a briefing with Australian politicians and more recently with British MPs in a parliamentary hearing to support moves by the UK government to regulate social media platforms and share in the responsibility for content posted to their sites.]

But Forbes wasn't alone in thinking that Facebook needed to take some proactive measures to address the serious harm both Haugen and many others have been saying for some time.

Sue Ellson, who teaches Social Media Strategy at the Social Media College for the Australian Institute of Management and the Centre for Adult Education, was a little more optimistic about Facebook's position, and added:

"When Cambridge Analytica hit the news here in Australia, I remember seeing the average monthly users on Facebook drop from 17 million to 15 million.

"Alas, it appeared to take about two years and they recovered them. Sadly, I believe that too many people make money out of Facebook Ads and the segmentation options so I suspect a lot of people will turn a blind eye to how they get the results and just keep trying to make money from it."

Tony Nicholls, former broadcast journo turned PR expert at Good Talent Media feels that Facebook needs to watch its back for new market entrants who threaten its stranglehold, adding:

"Haugen's comments are likely to sustain the recent downward trend of personal users veering away from Facebook over privacy and safety concerns. 

"Businesses that are reliant on Facebook's all-in-one marketing system are likely to hang on for the moment, however new competitors that can provide similar marketplace services while putting safeguards in place to address users' concerns may become the new go-to platform.

"Sending out one of Zuckerberg's minions in former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to respond on the US Sunday morning talk shows was fine in theory, but Clegg wasn't as effective as he could have been. Facebook needs to take full responsibility for its role in the January 6 US Capitol riots and for causing self-esteem problems among young people and that means saying so. It is as simple as that.

Being accountable by showing heart and emotion is the only chance for the social media giant to recover from its continuing reputational crisis."

So what did Facebook do?

Well, rather than take onboard the criticism thrown their way, Facebook appeared to adopt the techniques of much-lauded illusionists like Siegfried and Roy with their 'don't look there - look over HERE' announcement they were now to be called 'Meta'.

Of course, Zuckerberg argued the timing of the annoucement "...had nothing to bear on this. Even though I think some people might want to make that connection, I think that’s sort of a ridiculous thing."  

"...had nothing to bear on this. Even though I think some people might want to make that connection, I think that’s sort of a ridiculous thing."

Hmmm. Is it though?

He also said that the company lives "...for what we're building and, while we make mistakes, we're always learning and building and moving forward." 

"...for what we're building and, while we make mistakes, we're always learning and building and moving forward."

Unfortunately, there's no mention of looking back to address the carnage left behind.

Whether it really was just the clumsy execution of a rebranding that was pre-arranged to fall at the exact time 1,000s of leaked internal documents exposed Facebook's more sinister motivations, is actually irrelevant.

Perception is reality and (as the saying goes) if it quacks like a...

What's most important is what happens next, and whether the billions of account holders will ultimately act with their digits (and leave) or continue to gulp down what's being fed by the social media giant. 

Only time will tell, but personally, I'm not feeling hungry.