If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs and paying attention during commercial breaks, you may have noticed a trio of multibillion-dollar companies buying expensive airtime to say "we’re sorry."
The ads were bought by three California companies all trying to bounce back from a series of debilitating scandals — for Facebook, privacy and misinformation; for Uber, sexual harassment and user privacy; and for Wells Fargo, a series of fraud and wealth management scandals. All share a similar goal: to move out of the current rut of bad publicity. Uber’s ad offers an apology of sorts from its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi. Looking straight to camera, he offers his word that the company aims to do better and has built a “new leadership and a new culture,” which will provide “a better service.” Wells Fargo’s approach, though it lacks an appearance by a company executive, is blunt in its assessment of its failure to live up to its long-standing reputation. “We built on that trust,” the ad reads, “until we lost it.” The bank’s ad suggests its culture is undergoing a full reinvention.
And then there’s Facebook’s “Here Together” ad, which, unlike the other two, sidesteps any blame for whatever it’s apologizing for.
“We came here for the friends...and just like that we felt a little less alone,” the Facebook ad begins over a sober piano score. “But then something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news, and data misuse.” Left unspoken is who exactly was responsible for that “something” and why exactly we all “had to deal” with that spam and clickbait and fake news and data misuse. The answer, of course, is Facebook.
The careful wording of the Facebook ad, one the company has likely spent millions on to show during the NBA playoffs and even in cinemas across the country, is indicative of how the company has long handled its seemingly endless series of blunders and mini-scandals — it suggests a broader reluctance to accept full responsibility for what happens on its platform and shows that Facebook has extraordinary difficulty delivering an adequate apology.
The “Here Together” ad strikes a peculiar, passive tone; there’s a general sense of disappointment and empathy, but little in the way of contrition. We made a nice place for you and your friends to hang out, it suggests, but a bunch of assholes ruined it and that sucks.
That’s basically a true story, but it ignores a key fact: The place Facebook built prioritizes clicks, shares, ads, and money over quality of information, and rewards it with more attention. And that data misuse? While it’s true that Facebook didn’t directly hand over personal information of unwitting users to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, the company’s cavalier privacy features, lack of foresight, and lax data permissions structures made the scandal possible.
Which is to say: It refuses to do the real work of looking inward. For all its blog posts and full-page newspaper ads and on- and off-the-record sessions with journalists, Facebook has yet to apologize for or even publicly interrogate the “Move Fast and Break Things” ethos that defined the company during its first decade (in 2014, the company changed its mantra to the far clunkier “Move Fast With Stable Infra"). It’s opted, instead, to note repeatedly that many of Facebook’s privacy issues would have been nearly impossible to foresee when the CEO was constructing the site in his dorm room at Harvard.
“Here Together” posits Facebook as a sort of third-party facilitator — a neutral platform. After all, a neutral platform is simple and passive. It is as good or bad as the people who use it. But little about Facebook is simple or passive. The company is itself enormous, with tens of thousands of employees and over 2 billion users. It didn’t get that way passively. It has profit margins to maintain and users to gain and a stock price to worry about. And, like any responsible company, it makes calculated decisions based on those interests, including how to calibrate the algorithms that determine what each of its users see and watch. In News Feed ranking meetings, fresh-faced, bright young things meticulously plot how the placement of pixels will cause people to click more, or less, on the items they scroll past in their feeds.
The “Here Together” ad isn’t the only expensive piece of video the company has put out in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Facebook debuted a 12-minute short film titled “Facing Facts,” directed by Academy Award–winning documentarian Morgan Neville. The video itself is not intended as an apology of any kind but it is no doubt an essential component of Facebook’s apology or image rehabilitation tour. Like “Here Together,” its primary goal is to assuage viewers — in this case by showing them how committed the company is toward fixing the problem of “false news.” “We’re doing everything we can to fight this,” head of News Feed John Hegeman notes in the video, “99% isn’t good enough.”
The film’s message appears to be: This is all quite hard. News, the Facebook employees rightly argue, is complicated. The truth is messy, one Facebook data science manager notes, while dividing information into four quadrants on a whiteboard: “wrong” information, “right” information, “propaganda,” and “hoaxes.” Objectivity, for a platform like Facebook, is even harder, the video suggests; the company doesn’t want to meddle too much with what its users see, but it’s also clear from the last 18 months that the company maybe ought to meddle some. The film is far from hubristic but it ends on a confident note. “We’re taking great steps every single day toward solving this incredibly complex problem,” one employee says into the camera. Cool. Thanks.
And yet, the effort somehow still feels flat. Much like Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimonies before Congress and both UK and European parliaments, the video offers only vague generalizations. Any responsibility for the missteps comes only from the subtext of the film — we made this video because you think we fucked up; I am here testifying before Congress because you think we fucked up — there’s little overt admission of past errors.
What both “Facing Facts” and “Here Together” have in common is that they fail to address a vital component of the corporate apology: the company culture. Facebook’s misinformation efforts are appreciated, but more than a little late. Users don’t want a pledge that the company will now begin to do what it ought to have been doing all along; they want an acknowledgment that privileging breakneck innovation and attention optimization over all else got us to where we are now. And that the onus for all that falls squarely on Facebook. It moved fast, things broke.
Nobody expects a company — especially one that operates at Facebook’s scale — to anticipate or plan for every conceivable hurdle at its inception. But Facebook wasn’t built in a day. And many of the privacy, advertising, and misinformation problems that have plagued the company didn’t appear overnight — they evolved slowly as a response to the conscious design of the platform. By not meaningfully addressing its culture and helping to draw a line from Zuckerberg’s dorm room to Cambridge Analytica and Russian troll farms, Facebook is seen as only treating the symptoms instead of the disease.
It’s why Facebook’s recent efforts, as earnest as they may be, feel ultimately unsatisfying. And it’s why the Uber and Wells Fargo commercials, despite also being expensive acts of marketing, feel much less like bullshit.