Facebook and the media kiss and make up

Facebook spends a fortune lobbying Congress. But next year, the corporation might win back prominent members of the media with nothing more than a few freshly updated press releases.

We’re seeing inklings of the change already. As Twitter unravels, tech commentators have conflated its problems with Facebook’s alleged recent failures to opine that social media is out of fashion, Facebook is over, the kids are all on TikTok now, and so on. These commentators seem to be recycling talking points straight from Facebook’s own antitrust lawyers.

What’s happening at Facebook and Twitter is markedly different: One company is gargantuan, the other merely large. Sure, Facebook’s stock has declined and the company announced layoffs, but — like everyone in Silicon Valley — it’s feeling the effects of interest rate hikes. And with the FTC’s antitrust case looming, Facebook has limited range to expand. But make no mistake: The company is enormous and it continues to be enormous despite minor setbacks.

Facebook’s continued global dominance can’t be overstated, although some people — especially wealthy people based in the United States, many of whom might work in media — may find they can easily live without it. Suggesting that Facebook is on the decline when it’s really not sets up the perfect opening for the company to stage a comeback with the press in 2023.

You can imagine the stories now: “The company faced its darkest hours, but Mark Zuckerberg pulled it together…to build community.” “The economy has been brutal, but my, what a turnaround in the latest earnings report!” The company’s rivalry with TikTok will be played up like an Olympics match. Facebook’s many scandals will fall to the wayside in the press, just as its coercive power was largely ignored by the media up until 2016. Targeted advertising will continue to be normalized in the absence of policy that bans this egregious practice. Algorithmic filtering and engagement metrics will be rebranded as helping people find relevant information. All of Facebook’s abuses stem from its scale, but the media — having recently underplayed the company’s size — might turn to defend Facebook as a necessity, a utility, even a democratizing force (as the company once marketed itself).

What might have recently seemed like a galvanizing case against Facebook in legacy media looks in retrospect, like fumes of rage after the 2016 election. Several years on, many might find it hard to recall what Cambridge Analytica actually was (and maybe what it delivered was nonsense, but the scope of that operation revealed how Facebook’s scale exceeded dangerous proportions). Still, even in the thick of its scandals, Facebook has always been great at playing the press. Look at all the credulous reporting it garnered when it launched the Facebook Oversight Board, a farce of an attempt to demonstrate the company can regulate itself — a fig leaf for its countless abuses, up to enabling genocide.

Watch for Facebook to reemerge, promoting itself as the sensible, mature alternative to Elon Musk’s Twitter chaos. This has happened before. In the early years, Facebook positioned itself as a clean-cut social network that was nothing like the “trailer park” (as one New York Times writer put it) that was MySpace.

All of this will happen more swiftly if Mark Zuckerberg steps back as the public face. I don’t necessarily think that will happen. But the possibility of a fresh face at Facebook — someone the media will love, who could further normalize and entrench the corporation in our everyday lives — terrifies me.

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