Facebook might just face its biggest crisis since the founding more than 12 years ago.
A lot of people think that the social network’s newsfeed impacted the US presidential election by fostering filter bubbles and by encouraging (and benefiting from) the politically motivated creation and distribution of fake news. The allegations have been surfacing more frequently over the past months. Ater the surprising victory of Donald Trump, the pressure on the company to fix flaws is mounting. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg just published his thoughts on the issue, emphasizing the “extreme” unlikelihood that hoaxes changed the outcome of the election in one direction or the other. However, he promises improvements and further research into the matter nonetheless.
We’ll see what the company comes up with. But while many eyes are focusing on the factual issue of the newsfeed algorithm’s impact, the crisis includes a second dimension of trouble for the social networking giant, and it’s a significant one: The allegations pose a huge threat to Facebook’s internal unity and employer brand.
Facebook has 15.000 employees. The company is headquartered in California, the pinnacle of U.S. liberalism. Most of the company’s offices are based in urban areas. Most of its employees are young. Based on the voting demographics of the recent election, it is pretty likely that a large majority of Facebook’s employees has voted or would have voted for Hillary Clinton. It is equally likely that a large majority of the company’s employees despises what Donald Trump (and his companions) stands for.
All these people suddenly are faced with the real possibility that the company that always praises itself for making the world more open and connected in fact helped to put a reckless demagogue in charge of the “leader of the free world”. A person whose promises represent the opposite of Facebook’s official values.
No one will ever know how the outcome of the election would have looked like in a world without Facebook. Which is why no matter how much one personally believes in the company’s influence on public opinion – the 2016 U.S. election will forever be remembered as the election in which Facebook was suspected to have been complicit in bringing Donald Trump into power.
That stigmatization will be of a huge concern to many of the liberals who work at Facebook. Some of them will question their commitment to a company that has that kind of power and that possibly employs it carelessly. There have been internal debates at Facebook about how to deal with Donald Trump before. Now they will intensify. For Mark Zuckerberg and his leadership team, the challenge is not only to satisfy the public. They need to worry about the loyalty and satisfaction of their employees. A tech company such as Facebook can only thrive with top talent. If the type of top talent that Facebook needs concludes that the type of service offered by the company causes real harm, this could mean the end for Facebook’s growth story.
Whether that will happen depends on Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership and on whether he can convince his staff that there is no dissonance between the promoted values and the actual actions.
Every step that the company will take to tackle the newsfeed issue and every statement it will make in regards to it has to be understood not only as a message to the public but also to the employees. Because when they go to work in the morning, they’ll now be very aware of the responsibility that is being handed to them. Essentially, it’s not less than the future of the world and the fate of billions of people. That’s not something you want to take lightly.
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