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Opinion A name change can’t fix what’s broken at Facebook

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg speaks at a virtual event Oct. 28 to announce the company's rebranding as Meta. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News)

A friend recently applied for a job at Facebook and the first interview question was: “Well, what do we do?” The now-obvious answer should have been, “Change your name.”

The announcement Thursday that Facebook — the corporation, not the dominant social media platform that is part of it — henceforth will be known as Meta was a lesson in narrative-shifting crisis management, but not a new one. When all other public relations strategies fail to deflect attention from, say, your habit of dumping toxic substances into people’s lungs, call yourself something else.

At least this is surely what the megacompany hopes.

I say this as a long-ago science writer for a crisis-management firm that represented a company that now calls itself Altria. Like Facebook, the former Philip Morris was under fire — more like Northern California’s Camp Fire — once the company was exposed for having known its cigarette products were killing people.

Also, like Facebook, PM, as employees called the company, was more than a tobacco peddler. It owned Kraft foods and Maxwell House coffee, among other brands, and chose the name Altria (from the Latin “altus” for “high”) to reflect its “peak” performance. In 2003, Philip Morris joined the ash heap of history.

What’s in a name? Not much, really. Altria still sells cigarettes around the world. But a lot of people, mostly lawyers, got rich with lawsuits against the Marlboro men and women. Future generations won’t know much about Altria’s history, leaving mostly stockbrokers to talk about the company.

Similarly, Facebook’s move to change the conversation about how its policies have done damage — from the dissemination of disinformation to attracting children to harmful practices — will do little to change public opinion, at least in the short term.

In his announcement before a Facebook “Connect” audience, the company’s annual idea-sharing conference, founder Mark Zuckerberg said he wasn’t trying to shift focus from the controversies. He merely wanted his company’s name to reflect its many interests (including WhatsApp and Instagram) and its grand vision to create a metaverse in which a billion people can become avatars and engage with each other virtually.

Zuckerberg admitted that he’s at least a decade away from realizing that dream, which he says he first envisioned while in college. But never mind. What’s 10 years when you’re building a new world where people can shop, attend meetings, play chess, attend parties and, well, one can envision all sorts of potential virtual adventures.

One can also easily imagine a virtual world of bad actors, abuses and unintentional consequences that would make current concerns about teens suffering self-esteem issues pale by comparison. As recently revealed in internal documents produced by whistleblower Frances Haugen,some teens reported increased suicidal thoughts because of their Instagram experience. In a deeply immersive metaverse, might their avatars lead them to even darker places?

Meanwhile, “The Facebook Papers,” a series of news stories by a consortium of 17 news organizations and based on company documents provided to Congress, are filled with reasons not to trust Meta any more than people trust Facebook. They detail not only how groups on Facebook helped to plant seeds of violence on Jan. 6 but also how human traffickers have used its platforms. Let’s just say that criminals have found Zuckerberg’s hospitality commodious to their purposes.

Putting lipstick on this pig isn’t likely to improve the stench of the slop in which Zuckerberg finds himself. And, yes, the onus falls on him not only because he’s the CEO but also because his is the first and last word at Facebook. Zuckerberg is Meta, in other words.

Thus, one is inclined to say that Zuckerberg’s claim to having been humbled by recent events reeks a bit of hogwash. His critics may be forgiven if they fail to accept his assertions that recent lessons learned would be incorporated into his virtual plans.

This is a tale both classic and all too familiar in the world of boy-geniuses, high-tech billionaires and ambition unmoored from everyday reality. Zuckerberg’s hubris is the stuff of both American politics and the Greek mythology he reportedly admires.

Zuckerberg may well see himself as Prometheus, the genius who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. But there was a harsh penalty for the brash Prometheus’s betrayal of trust and, therein, a moral not to be ignored. Had I been his crisis manager, I’d have suggested that Zuckerberg change his tune before his company’s name.