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Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced ‘Meta’ as the new corporate name on Thursday. The rebranding comes as Facebook battles an onslaught of bad PR after a series of leaked internal documents reveal the company did not do enough to stop hate speech, anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracies. New York Times’ technology reporter Sheera Frenkel joins.
Facebook continued to be a top story, almost nonstop this week. Thousands of internal documents are now public, and dozens of news organizations continue to publish stories about what the company did not do to stop hate speech, anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracies. On Thursday, Facebook's founder announced a name change, making 'Meta' the new parent company for the vast social media empire.
For the latest, I spoke with New York Times technology reporter Sheera Frenkel, coauthor of the recent book 'An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination.'
Sheera, what has happened in the last week and a half, considering you literally have written a book on Facebook. The volume of information, the volume of stories that have come out about Facebook, are you surprised?
I'm not surprised, only because the themes are just the same as the themes that we researched for this book. Facebook employees have been trying to tell their executives for years about the problems they've seen. I was actually thinking back to an interview I did with somebody who worked on Facebook's News Feed in 2015, who warned the company's executives, including Chris Cox, about the inundation of fake news and conspiracies that they were seeing ahead of the 2016 elections. Things that they knew were incredibly problematic. They were trying to suggest solutions and they were being ignored.
You know, what's also interesting to me is the disparity in how much effort Facebook put into what was happening in the United States versus what was happening in other parts of the world where they just do not seem to have at all close to the amount of resources necessary to tackle the problems.
That's right, Hari, and I actually had a very, very similar reaction when I saw that statistic about how Facebook spends 87 percent of its budget fighting misinformation on the United States and 13 percent on the entire rest of the world. That number, that statistic, I think, is even more startling when you realize that Facebook has more people that use its platform in just India than it does in the entire United States. So you can see just how disproportionate those numbers are.
And what were some of the challenges? I know you had a recent story about the the type of things that happened in India. I mean, it's actually led to loss of life — that's measurable.
So India has a really interesting example. The next one billion users was what Mark Zuckerberg called it back in 2018, when he had this idea that he wanted to bring an additional billion people online through Facebook. You end up with this immense population. Over 400 million people in India join Facebook. And you didn't see in conjunction with that the kind of safety steps that the company now realized that it should have taken. So the development of language capabilities — this is a country with 22 languages that are spoken. And even just last year, when India had its elections, Facebook was only operating in three, I think four, if you include English of the languages that are spoken in India.
It's almost impossible for a computer to recognize a language that's not kind of in its corpus, whereas people will make images and in whatever, scribble whatever script that they write and then they post it on the Facebook and the message still gets across, even though a human censor or a machine isn't going to pick it up, right?
Exactly. And it's doubly hard because you have to train your computer systems in all those languages. But it's not enough for computers to be trained because as we know things like hate speech and conspiracies, they're so specific. It's slogans, it's turns of phrases. You have to be immersed in that community in that population to know what is problematic, right? They might be using a word as a hate speech or as a slur that their systems aren't trained on and are familiar with because they have no one on the ground there that's telling them, hey, this term is currently problematic and should be flagged because people are using it to incite violence.
So what happens now? I mean, there has been this scrutiny on Facebook, but you listen to their quarterly earnings and they still have 2.8 billion people, most of them outside of the United States using the platform, and they're still making money.
I think that one thing these people show and one thing that are reporting in the New York Times have shown recently is that at least here in the United States and in Europe, other social media is a lot more popular, like TikTok and Snapchat. And they know that even though they're not showing that in the revenues and the earning reports now it is going to, it is going to show up.
Eventually, it might take five years, it might take 10 years, but eventually that loss of kind of the young, important population that advertisers want to see, that's going to be reflected in their earnings.
Also this week, we saw a name change. How significant is this?
So the idea of switching their name is new. You know, Philip Morris did this, other companies did this. But I think it's going to be interesting to see whether it works for Facebook because Facebook, as a company, is so closely tied to Mark Zuckerberg and his image as the genius founder and the chief executive. Mark Zuckerberg is still in control of Meta or Facebook or whatever you want to call it. And I do wonder whether people will accept this name change and this idea that it's a fresh new company turning over a new leaf when they know Mark Zuckerberg still sits at the head of it.
Sheera Frenkel, of The New York Times Thanks so much.
Thank you so much for having me.
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