Smoke, mirrors and Meta

The name change was made official on October 28, when the newly dubbed Meta replaced the sign outside its headquarters, previously a thumbs-up logo, with the emblem of its corporate rebrand – an infinity symbol.

It's an ominous glyph that brings to mind visions of Meta lingering far into the 2100s and beyond. Zuckerberg's plans for Meta have a similar sci-fi flavor to them, however. The new name alludes to the "metaverse", which Zuckerberg and company hope will become a virtual space for people to work, play, and communicate, all with VR headsets.

It's utopic, it's reductive, and it's not going to be enough to bury the company's toxic reputation.

 

First impressions of the Facebook rebrand

Facebook's rebranding immediately sparked a global conversation – and no small amount of ridicule, particularly from Hebrew speakers, who pointed out that "Meta" is the feminine form of the Hebrew word for "dead". Not the best first impression to make.

Some individuals were also quick to point out the uncanny resemblance between Meta's new infinity-shaped icon and the logo of a German digital migraine treatment app, M-sense Migräne. The striking similarity could, in theory, be grounds for a lawsuit, and the company has stated:

We are very honoured that Facebook felt inspired by the logo of our migraine app - maybe they'll get inspired by our data privacy procedures as well.

M-sense

Bait and switch

However, Meta may have more pressing concerns to contend with at the moment.

Ex-employee Frances Haugen sent shockwaves around the world when she shared internal documents revealing that Facebook was aware that it struggled to pluck hate speech from its platform, and that it was also aware of how damaging Instagram was, and still is, to the mental health of countless teenagers.

In fact, whilst addressing the Online Safety Bill committee in London, Haugen emphasized how Instagram magnifies body image issues, particularly in teen girls, by promoting harmful, popular content.

Instagram has also been criticized for overwhelming teenagers with unrealistic body standards not only as posts on their timelines, but as advertisements, too. Speaking to a committee of MPS and Lords, Haugen said:

Instagram is about social comparison and about bodies... about people's lifestyles, and that's what ends up being worse for kids.

Frances Haugen

To corroborate Haugen's claims, a slide from an internal Facebook presentation, accessed by the Wall Street Journal, even stated that: "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls".

Haugen's documents have since been shared with US and UK lawmakers, news outlets, and privacy advocates, who have largely condemned Facebook's role in a mental health epidemic happening alongside the continued spread of COVID-19. Now, Haugen's testimony puts pressure on those lawmakers to take legislative action to hold the company accountable.

As such, it's probably not a great time to be Mark Zuckerberg, who has dismissed the reports as "coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company".

But isn't that exactly what he's trying to do by rebranding Facebook to Meta? Does a change of name really absolve the company of its reprehensible attitudes towards user privacy? Should we really be getting excited about the metaverse when the company behind it is more interested in distracting from its problems than solving them?

The hall of shame

Unfortunately, the company formerly known as Facebook has never inspired much confidence when it comes to securely handling user data. In February 2021, a $650 million settlement was approved in a lawsuit where Facebook was accused of using photo face-tagging without first gaining user permission.

In October 2021, the information of more than 1.5 billion users was put up for sale on a hacking forum – an open invitation to cybercriminals everywhere. This was shortly followed by a total blackout of some of Meta's most popular platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which did little beyond frustrating users and highlighting some of the more pertinent drawbacks of a technical monopoly.

Data breaches have also become something of a Facebook speciality over the years. In April 2021, it was revealed that the data of 533 million people had been exposed to hackers – and Facebook eventually hand-waved the issue, dismissing it as old news and "old data". This had privacy experts stumped. Even "old" data can be useful to cybercriminals, particularly as the details in question weren't the sort that change often – Facebook IDs, phone numbers, even names, locations, and email addresses.

Instagram has had its own share of security woes, too, when it was revealed that millions of passwords were stored in insecure plain text format in April 2019 and readable to any employees who might've wanted to take a peek.

Finally, the Cambridge Analytica scandal remains a relevant and haunting glimpse of how Facebook, now Meta, can be used by those with crooked intentions, or worse.

Paying the price

The breaches and oversights listed above are only a small (and recent) selection of Meta's checkered history. However, vice president Nicola Mendelsohn has stated that the company plans to spend $5 billion this year to protect people's safety, data, and privacy.

That's a lot of money, and you might wonder how Meta even manages to have that much change tucked away. Well, Facebook actually raked in a profit of $9 billion in the three months running up to September. That's up $7.8 billion from 2020, and certainly underscores Haugen's point that the social media giant puts profit before security.

It's also worth noting that, despite being lumped with (arguably negligible) fines from the FTC, Meta has not suffered any lasting consequences for its myriad mistakes. In fact, the company's stock actually rose in the wake of its record $5 billion fine following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

A key part of the Meta problem was outlined in Haugen's leaks – the company does a lot of its own internal research into known issues… and then nothing tends to happen. Remember how Instagram knew about its damaging effect on the mental health of teenage girls? That research was kept quiet, no policies were adjusted, and the company continued to rake in money and data.

A new world

So, if Zuckerberg won't commit to making positive changes, the pressure is now on policymakers to step in on his behalf.

Perhaps the rebrand is an attempt to distract the global populace from these ugly legal proceedings. Perhaps it's an attempt to give us something else to focus on – and wouldn't those shiny new plans to create a metaverse do the trick?

Either way, user concerns have once again been swept aside. So why do so many people continue to use Facebook?

The answer is grim – there's nowhere else to go. Facebook users can count on the platform to keep their friends, family, and coworkers in one place, after all, and those individuals are in the exact same situation. Facebook itself doesn't particularly care about making the site a great place to check in with loved ones. That utility, by now, is just a fortunate byproduct of its goal to harvest data, maximize profits, and root out any plucky rivals that crop up.

A new name isn't going to change an already muddied public opinion. As Senator Richard Blumenthal said:

A new nom de plume may confuse and distract, but won't erase years of devious practices and disregard for privacy, kids' well-being, spreading hate, and genocide.

Richard Blumenthal

We can't count on Meta itself to make any meaningful changes to its privacy policy or attitude towards user security. Relying on legislation to moderate the platform is an inelegant solution, however, considering how long it takes for laws to pass, and how quickly technology can evolve in the meantime.

We might instead look to a federal privacy law with a private right of action, which would force Facebook to allow competitor services to inter-operate with the platform, so that its users aren't kept under virtual lock and key.

Into the metaverse?

Ultimately, it's really down to us to decide whether we really want to live in Zuckerberg's proposed metaverse. Do we really want to venture into his new world when his social media titans have done so much damage to our original one?

The metaverse promises to be a place of cutting edge tech and boundless creativity, but if it's also a place where data breaches are deemed minor inconveniences, and where user privacy isn't respected, then it's not worth stepping into.

 

Written by: Hannah Hart

Originally hailing from Wales, Hannah Hart graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a 1:1 in Creative Writing, going on to work as an Editor across a number of trade magazines. As a professional writer, Hannah has worked across both digital and print media, and is familiar with collating news pieces, in depth reports and producing by lines for international publications. Otherwise, she can be found pouring over a tarot deck or spending more hours than she'll ever admit playing Final Fantasy 14.

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