Facebook Inc. Changes Name; Critics Call It Distraction

November 3, 2021 – Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of what was called Facebook Inc., announced on Thursday, October 28, that the tech giant will now be called Meta. Formerly known as Facebook Inc., Meta has some of the major communication platforms under its brand, including the social media platform Facebook, photo-sharing app Instagram, end-to-end encrypted messaging app WhatsApp, instant messaging app Messenger, and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets Oculus. Zuckerberg disclosed the name at the company’s annual AR/VR Connect conference. 

The major change came as the company has increasingly been focusing on developing what it calls “metaverse”, a virtual reality to be accessed through its Oculus headsets. During a keynote presentation announcing the name change and Meta’s objective with metaverse, Zuckerberg said, “Right now, our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything that we’re doing today, let alone in the future.” He added, “Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we’re building toward.”

Announcing the update, the official Meta Twitter account posted, “Meta is helping to build the metaverse, a place where we’ll play and connect in 3D. Welcome to the next chapter of social connection.”

The company learned in previous earnings reports that the virtual reality segment is showing substantial growth. Therefore, the decision to divide Meta’s products into two fragments, Family of Apps and Reality Labs, was reached. “Family of Apps” will encompass Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, while “Reality Labs” will include Meta’s work focusing on Augmented and Virtual Reality or AR/VR, and any other related hardware. 

Meta partnered with Ray-Ban in September 2021 to introduce a new set of sunglasses called Ray-Ban Stories that has a built-in camera, microphone and earphones that let you take photos, record 30-second videos, take calls and listen to music. The sunglasses pairs with Facebook View app that lets the wearer to easily import their photos and videos to their phone.

Metaverse is Meta’s attempt to advance its work into VR which Zuckerberg says will reach billions of users in the future. According to him, it would allow users to customise their digital spaces down to the tiniest details. 

It is also important to note that the corporate structure of the company will remain unchanged, unlike its financials. The company plans to devise financial reports for two segments, Family of Apps and Reality Labs, in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

The news of the rebranding of one of the largest companies in the world comes as Meta finds itself amidst the backlash after a whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed tens of thousands of papers, titled by the Wall Street Journal as “Facebook Files” detailing how the company neglected human rights violations on its platforms and, despite having the information, did not take action to control the spread. Amongst various disclosures, a major revelation focused on how Instagram negatively impacted the mental health of teenagers on the app, and the company did not proactively respond to the complaints.

During the Connect conference, while Mark Zuckerberg focused on the technological revolution that Meta will bring to the world through the future of virtual reality, critics did not shy away from criticising the controversial rebranding of the company. United States Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez described Meta as “a cancer to democracy” in her tweet,

Similarly, other US Senators voiced their opinions as well. Senator Richard Blumenthal called it a distraction from the real-life problems that the Meta has been propagating through its platforms for years, and for which the company has been questioned by the Senate and is under investigation. He tweeted that the new name “may confuse & distract, but won’t erase years of devious practices & disregard for privacy, kids’ wellbeing, spreading hate, & genocide” 

Senator Ed Markey emphasized that Meta shall only be known for its role in promoting violence, and called it a “threat to privacy, democracy, and children.”

The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group formed by global academics, researchers and civil rights leaders in a response to the Facebook Oversight Board, issued a statement, “Facebook thinks that a rebrand can help them change the subject”, emphasizing that Facebook’s real issue is the need for oversight and regulation.

Furthermore, Jim Heininger, founder of Rebranding Experts, a company that works on rebranding organisations, critiques Facebook’s renaming and says, “The most effective way for Facebook to address the challenges that have tainted its brand recently is through corrective actions, not trying to change its name or installing a new brand architecture”.

Imran Ahmed, the CEO of Centre for Countering Digital Hate, told The Guardian, “The fact that Zuckerberg has set his sights firmly on the so-called ‘metaverse’ while societies all over the world are scrambling to alleviate the myriad harms caused by his platforms just goes to show how out of touch Facebook is with real people.” Other critics argue that just like Facebook Inc enjoys a monopoly on people’s communication and access to the internet around the world, the company, with its elaborate vision to expand its idea of virtual reality through metaverse, seeks to monopolise in the virtual reality world as well. 

Facebook (now Meta) has an ongoing antitrust lawsuit against it filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US alleging that the company enjoys a monopoly over social networking and does not allow new entrants into the market. The company, on October 5, 2021 – the day when Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus went offline for over 6 hours around the world and led to Mark Zuckerberg losing $6 billion worth of personal wealth within hours, moved the court to dismiss the FTC antitrust complaint. It argued, “The FTC’s fictional market ignores the competitive reality: Facebook competes vigorously with TikTok, iMessage, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, YouTube, and countless others to help people share, connect, communicate or simply be entertained,” adding, “The FTC cannot credibly claim Facebook has monopoly power because no such power exists.”

During an hour-long presentation at the Facebook Connect conference, Zuckerberg acknowledged the ongoing investigation and pressure around Facebook Files and the family of apps that Meta owns, and remarked that there are some pressing concerns against the social media platform, but the company would still continue to create new products. However, many argue that the timing of the announcement is suspicious given that the revelations highlighting human rights violations including the impact on mental health and constant human trafficking on its platforms have been bringing negative publicity towards the company.

Meta is notoriously known for its role in privacy and human rights violations around the world and has consistently ignored alarms raised by both internal teams and external stakeholders. The indifference towards this abuse led to significant violence erupting in countries around the world, including in Myanmar as Facebook became a tool to spread violent speech that propagated genocide against Rohingya Muslims in the country, the January 6 Capitol Hill riot in the US for which the rioters mobilised on Facebook, and ethnic cleansing in India where Facebook’s senior executives in the country refused to censor hate speech from the members of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) out of concerns to not upset the government.

Mishaal is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy. She is a Public Policy graduate with past experience as content strategist and research writer. Her main areas of interest are political science, world history, and public policy.

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