“There’s no mental health support. The suicide rate is extremely high,” one of the directors of the documentary, “The Cleaners” told CBS News last May. The film is an investigative look at the life of Facebook moderators in the Philippines. Throughout his 2018 apology tour, Mark Zuckerberg regularly referenced the staff of moderators the company had hired as one of two key solutions—along with AI—to the platform’s content evils. What he failed to disclose is that the majority of that army is subcontractors employed in the developing world.
For as long as ten hours a day, viewing as many as 25,000 images or videos per day, these low-paid workers are buried in the world’s horrors—hate speech, child pornography, rape, murder, torture, beheadings, and on and on. They are not experts in the subject matter or region they police. They rely on “guidelines” provided by Facebook—“dozens of unorganised PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets with bureaucratic titles like ‘Western Balkans Hate Orgs and Figures’ and ‘Credible Violence: Implementation standards’,” as The New York Times reported last fall. The rules are not even written in the languages the moderators speak, so many rely on Google Translate. As a recent op-ed by John Naughton in The Guardian declares bluntly in its headline, “Facebook’s burnt-out moderators are proof that it is broken.”
As we noted last week (WILTW January 10, 2019), 41 of the 53 analysts tracked by Bloomberg currently list Facebook as a buy, with “the average price target… $187, which implies upside of nearly 36%.” That optimism springs from a basic assumption: the company’s monopolistic data dominance means it can continue extracting more from advertisers even if controversy after controversy continues to sap its user growth. Given the depth and intractability of Facebook’s problems, this is at best short-sighted.
The platform’s content ecosystem is too poisoned for human or machine moderators to cleanse. Users are fleeing in droves, especially in the company’s most valuable markets. Ad buyers are already shifting dollars to competitors’ platforms. Governments are stepping up to dramatically hinder Facebook’s data-collection capabilities, with Germany just this week banning third-party data sharing. The company is under investigation by the FTC, the Justice Department, the SEC, the FBI, and several government agencies in Europe. It has been accused by the U.N. of playing a “determining role” in Myanmar's genocide. An executive exodus is underway at the company. And we believe, sooner or later, Facebook’s board will see no option but to remove Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg.
The market is drastically underestimating the peril the company is in. In the very short term, the user backlash may simply hinder its revenue growth. In the longer-term, however, the institutionalized failure to see and respond to the platform’s downsides may render Facebook the Digital Age’s Enron—a canonized example of how greed and corruption can fell even the mightiest.
According to data recently released by Statcounter, Facebook’s global social media market share dropped from 75.5% in December 2017 to 66.3% in December 2018. The biggest drop was in the U.S., from 76% to 52%. As Cowen survey results released this week suggest, these engagement declines will continue to depress the company’s earnings. Surveying 50 senior U.S. ad buyers controlling a combined $14 billion in digital ad budgets in 2018, 18% said they were decreasing their spend on Facebook. As a result, Cowen estimates the Facebook platform will lose 3% of its market share.
No doubt Facebook’s struggles are not just about the headline scandals. For years, one innovation priority after another has fallen flat, from VR to its video push to its laggard position in the digital-assistant race. The company’s most significant “innovation” success of the past few years was copying the innovation of a competitor—pilfering Snapchat’s ephemerality for its “moments” feature.
However, it’s the scandals that have most crippled the company’s brand and revealed the cultural rot trickling down from its senior ranks. Consider just the most-sensational revelations that emerged in 4Q18:
- Oct. 17: The Verge reports that Facebook knew about inaccuracies in the video viewership metrics that it provided to advertisers and brands for more than a year. “The inflated video views led both advertisers and media companies to bet too much on Facebook video.”
- Nov. 14: The New York Times publishes an investigative report that reveals Facebook hired a conservative PR firm to smear competitors and minimize the company’s role in Russia’s 2016 election meddling.
- Dec. 5: British lawmakers release 250 pages of internal Facebook emails that show that, “the company’s executives were ruthless and unsparing in their ambition to collect more data from users, extract concessions from developers and stamp out possible competitors,” as The New York Times reported.
- Dec. 14: Facebook reveals that a bug allowed third-party app developers to access photos people may not have shared publicly, with as many as 6.8 million users potentially affected.
- Dec. 17: Two Senate reports reveal the shocking extent of Russia’s efforts on social media platforms during the 2016 election, including the fact that Instagram was their biggest tool for misinformation.
- Dec. 18: The New York Times reports that Facebook gave the world’s largest technology companies far more intrusive access to user data than previously disclosed, including the Russian search firm Yandex.
- Dec. 20: TechCrunch reports that, “WhatsApp chat groups are being used to spread illegal child pornography, cloaked by the app’s end-to-end encryption.”
- Dec. 27: The New York Times obtains 1,400 pages of Facebook’s moderation guidelines and discovers an indecipherable mess of confusing language, bias, and obvious errors.
Scandal after scandal, the portrait of the company is the same: Ruthlessly and blindly obsessed with growth. Overwhelmed by that growth and unwilling to take necessary steps to compensate. Willing to lie and obfuscate until the truth becomes inescapable. And all the time excusing real-world consequences and clear violations of user and client trust because of the cultish belief that global interconnectedness is an absolute good, and therefore, Facebook is absolutely good.
The scale of Facebook’s global responsibility is staggering. As Naughton writes for The Guardian:
Facebook currently has 2.27bn monthly active users worldwide. Every 60 seconds, 510,000 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated and 136,000 photos are uploaded to the platform. Instagram, which allows users to edit and share photos as well as videos and is owned by Facebook, has more than 1bn monthly active users. WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service that is also owned by Facebook, now has 1.5bn monthly active users, more than half of whom use it several times a day.
Relying on tens of thousands of moderators to anesthetize the digital commons is both inadequate, and based on the reported working conditions, unethical and exploitative. AI is not the solution either, as we explored in WILTW April 12, 2018. According to Wired, Facebook has claimed that 96% of the adult and nude images users try to upload are now automatically detected and taken down by AI. That sounds like a success until you consider that that error rate means 1.3 million such images made it to the public in the third quarter of 2018 alone (30.8 million were taken down).
In fact, the company has acknowledged that views with nudity or sexual content have nearly doubled in the 12 months ending in September. And detecting nudity is a far easier task for a rules-based algorithm than deciding the difference between real and fake news, between hate speech and satire, or between pornography and art.
Facebook has economically and culturally empowered hundreds of millions of people around the world. It cannot be blamed for every destabilized government, war, or murder in every region it operates. However, more and more, it’s clear that one profit-driven platform that connects all of the world’s people to all of the world’s information—the vision Zuckerberg has long had for his invention—is a terminally-flawed idea. It leads to too much power in the hands of too few. It allows bad actors to centralize their bad actions. And it is incompatible with a world that values privacy, ownership, and truth.
Governments are waking up to this problem. So is the public. And no doubt, so are competitive innovators looking to expand or introduce alternatives. Collectively, they will chip away at Facebook’s power and profitability. Given the company’s leaders still appear blinded by and irrevocably attached to their business model and ideals, we doubt they can stave off the onslaught coming.