Facebook faces difficult road despite rebrand

Facebook’s rebrand as Meta has done little so far to assuage its critics or turn down the political heat focused on the Silicon Valley giant.

The makeover of the company founded by Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergTwo lawyers who filed suit challenging election results ordered to pay nearly 7K Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — DOJ unveils new election hacking charges State attorneys general launch probe into Instagram's impact on children, teens MORE in 2004 comes amid historic scrutiny of the social media behemoth, which has long been in the crosshairs of lawmakers and privacy hawks.

Facebook has been grabbing negative headlines for well over a month stemming from documents shared by a whistleblower, Frances Haugen. More than a dozen outlets this week released stories on the files, dubbed the Facebook Papers, painting a picture of a company consistently placing profits above user safety.

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Congress has taken note and vowed to take action on regulating the company following a hearing with Haugen earlier this month.

For his part, Zuckerberg has insisted that the rebrand has nothing to do with the bad new cycle.

“Even though I think some people might want to make that connection, I think that’s sort of a ridiculous thing,” he told The Verge in an interview. “If anything, I think that this is not the environment that you would want to introduce a new brand in.”

Some are less sure that the switch isn’t an attempt to save face.

“I think it's going to allow Mark to be less directly associated with the evils of Big Blue,” a former Facebook staffer who declined to be publicly named told The Hill, referring to the company’s flagship social media app.

The Meta name was unveiled during a more than hour-long event where Zuckerberg described a vision — though scant on details — of a metaverse seamlessly integrating virtual reality into real spaces.

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Despite the length of the event, the CEO almost entirely glossed over the firestorm of criticism and regulation facing Facebook, a fact not lost on advocates pushing for greater regulation of the tech firm.

“The problem with their brand is a problem with their services, with their products, with their platform,” Rashad Robinson, president of racial justice advocacy group Color of Change, told The Hill.

“Mark didn't spend any time talking about that. It’s a mix of a pivot, of a PR stunt, and of a distraction from what actually needs to happen — and that is real regulation, a breakup of Facebook and accountability on a platform that continues to do so much harm.”

Eric Naing, the communications director of Muslim Advocates, argued that pivoting amid the existing the problems all but guarantees they will only get worse with Meta.

“The same executives who keep putting profits and growth over the well-being of people are still in charge and are still refusing to do anything meaningful to fix the many problems with Facebook,” he told The Hill via email. “We are concerned that Facebook is trying to build several more stories onto a house that is already on fire.”

A Facebook spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though the company has been pushing back on reports based on the leaked documents and Haugen’s public comments, arguing that the internal research is being mischaracterized. 

“At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false. Yes, we're a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people's safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a previous statement. 

Facebook’s expansion into virtual reality spaces, and the new branding to go along with it, is also doing nothing to quell critics’ concerns over the company’s market power dominance.

“Meta is very clear in the branding, this is a corporation that wants you to know it aims to control everything and be everything. I think meta is exactly what you would name a company that needs to be broken up,” said Robyn Shapiro, director of communications at the American Economic Liberties Project. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is suing Facebook over allegations of anticompetitive acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. At the same time, Congress is looking to revamp antitrust laws to aid regulators’ ability to go after tech giants, including Facebook. 

“The police don’t care if you put on a new outfit. So fundamentally, this isn’t going to change much,” Shapiro said. 

“The legal case against Facebook is rock solid. It has been for years. And I don't think branding is going to do much of anything to change that,” she added. 

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Facebook has launched a full-fledged defense against the allegations. Earlier this month the company filed a motion to dismiss the FTC's amended complaint, with the company arguing it “competes vigorously” with companies such as TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat. 

Critics have also raised broader concerns about Meta expanding its emphasis into more aggressively pursuing augmented and virtual reality technology.

Mariana Ruiz Firmat, executive director of Kairos, a digital organizing group launching a campaign urging users to log off Facebook, said she’s concerned plans for the metaverse may exacerbate what advocates see as inadequate content moderation to combat hate speech. 

“Our concern, obviously, is that the current problems that exist with Facebook and Instagram and the internet at large are going to continue to exist in the Metaverse because tech is not neutral,” Firmat said. 

“There's all this talk about what Meta will become, and without a lot of clarity about what it is going to be. I think that poses some real danger and concerns for communities of color, not just in the United States, but globally,” she added. 

The metaverse, a term that first appeared in the dystopian 1990s sci-fi novel “Snow Crash,” is viewed by many observers as the next stage in the development of the internet — Web 3.0.

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Although several other companies have committed significant resources to developing this new generation of technology, Meta is immediately the biggest player in the space. It already has 10,000 staff working on augmented and virtual reality and plans to hire 10,000 more in Europe.

A company seeking to establish a dominant position in the new internet, however it ends up looking, has proponents of a decentralized future on high alert.

“It’s tempting to view Facebook’s rebranding as nothing more than a cynical attempt by the company to distance itself from endless scandals and the real-world harm caused by its surveillance capitalist business model,” Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “But it’s actually much more sinister than that. With this announcement Mark Zuckerberg revealed his end game: he’s making a play to control the future of the Internet.”

Updated 9:27 p.m.