More than a dozen mainstream media organizations published reports today on the so-called Facebook Papers, a trove of internal company documents obtained and released by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. The headlines promised dramatic revelations and damning indictments.
"Insiders say Facebook's CEO chose growth over safety," reports The Washington Post. For Axios, the Facebook Papers paint the social media company as "a brutish corporate actor that prioritizes its business over safety." Bloomberg News tweets that the documents provide "rare, vivid insight into ways Facebook has faltered in its mission."
The gap between those sensational claims and what actually appears in the articles is stark. If this is the best The New York Times, the Associated Press, etc., could do, then the Facebook Papers are a nothingburger.
As when Haugen first came forward—providing information that formed the basis of a series of Wall Street Journal reports—the real takeaway is that Facebook has been struggling to attract the young users it wants, faces robust competition, and generates apoplectic denunciation from mainstream journalists mostly because they resent the social media giant for shaking up the news industry.
There are, to be clear, some decent reasons in here to criticize Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The Washington Post reports that he was intimately involved with the company's decision to comply with the Vietnamese government's demand for greater censorship of political dissidents. Though even then, it's debatable what Zuckerberg should do when authoritarian governments demand content moderation. Should Facebook pull out of Vietnam, depriving the country of the site entirely? Is a censored version of Facebook worse than no Facebook at all?
Note as well that bowing to the Vietnamese government's demand for greater censorship is being treated as a bad thing by some of the same outlets that are shaming Facebook for not bowing to the U.S. government's request for greater censorship. The site's failure to take down extremism, hate speech, and misinformation related to U.S. presidential elections and the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a grave moral failing. U.S. senators scream at Facebook for doing the bidding of other governments while engaged in the very act of trying to compel Facebook to do the bidding of the U.S. Senate.
That's the central idea behind the mainstream media's framing of the Facebook Papers: The social media site is unsafe because there's too much content that the mainstream media and the government would prefer users not see. They're upset that the person in charge of deciding what belongs on Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg and not Joe Biden—and no amount of handwringing about addictive platforms or monopolistic practices can disguise the fact that the site is losing popularity with young people, and increasingly looks like a dying star.