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April 24, 2024

Facebook just turned 20, but don’t expect a party

Facebook just turned 20, but don’t expect a party

Facebook is now 20 years old, but don’t expect a big party. 

The company hit a historic milestone Sunday, marking the day in 2004 when a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg went live with a new website. Initially open only to Harvard University students and then students at other colleges, it was known at the time as thefacebook.com. 

The blue-themed app is still recognizable, although it has come a long way. Facebook now falls under the umbrella of Zuckerberg’s company Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and Meta is worth more than $1 trillion, making it one of the most valuable American corporations, based on its share price. On Thursday, it reported $39 billion in profit for 2023 and 3.07 billion monthly users of Facebook alone, sending the share price up 20.3% the day after. 

But for Facebook and Meta, the 20th birthday is hitting at an awkward time. Four days ago, Zuckerberg appeared before a Senate committee and was pressed into apologizing to parents who said their children died by suicides or drug overdoses that wouldn’t have happened without social media. 

Zuckerberg, as Meta’s CEO and majority owner, was met by audible hissing when he entered the hearing room Wednesday. Over several hours, he faced intense questioning from lawmakers about child safety and whether the company is investing in enough resources to safeguard kids and teenagers. 

“No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered,” Zuckerberg told the parents. 

The Senate hearing reinforced a dynamic that’s been true for years: Zuckerberg’s company seems inextricably tied up with controversy and political scrutiny, even as it’s been a smashing success as a profitable business and a pioneer of social media with features such as News Feed and the poke

Lawmakers say they’re moving toward potential landmark legislation to regulate Meta and other social media companies. Some lawmakers want to partially undo a 1996 law known as Section 230 that has given internet platforms immunity from many types of lawsuits, including lawsuits for publishing or hosting potentially defamatory posts written by others. Companies including Meta have said their immunity under Section 230 is broad, also barring lawsuits that allege their products have harmful design defects such as causing addiction or recommending terrorist content. 

Addressing his whipsaw week, Zuckerberg said in a post Thursday that he was focused on the long term. 

“You’re never as good as they say when you’re up, or as bad as they say when you’re down. Just keep building and doing good work over long periods of time,” he wrote on Threads

The unrelenting scrutiny on Meta by politicians, regulators, advocates and journalists leaves little room for public celebration, although it’s possible Zuckerberg will mark the birthday with a post on Facebook or Instagram, as he has for other milestones. 

A decade ago, Zuckerberg posted on Facebook’s 10th birthday that he was amazed by the company’s success at that point compared to its competitors. 

“We just cared more about connecting the world than anyone else,” he wrote in 2014, according to TechCrunch

A 20th birthday or anniversary for a major company would usually be a reason to go big on a public celebration. Walmart held parties at its 500 or so stores when the retailer hit the 20-year mark in October 1982, according to a press release from the time. Microsoft opened a company museum for its 20th in 1995, and Apple celebrated in 1997 with a special edition of its personal computer, called the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh. 

Meta, based in Menlo Park, California, has announced no similar plans to celebrate the birthday. A representative for the company declined to comment. 

In recent days, French newspaper Le Figaro took note of the Facebook milestone with a poll on its website, asking readers, “Have social networks been progress for society?” As of Friday, 86% had said “non.” 

Facebook has faced controversy since its early days. Weeks before the launch, in a bit of foreshadowing of future congressional testimony, Zuckerberg appeared before a Harvard University administrative board to face criticism over an earlier site he created, facemash.com. That site had allowed his fellow students to rank their classmates by physical attractiveness. 

Zuckerberg’s creation has been a lightning rod ever since. 

In 2004, two of Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmates, twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, sued him for allegedly copying the idea of Facebook from them. The dispute was depicted loosely in the 2010 film The Social Network, which won three Academy Awards. Zuckerberg and his co-founders denied the allegations. The parties settled, with “the Winklevii” twins getting $65 million

Though officially Facebook had five co-founders, Zuckerberg was in charge from the beginning, and for years, Facebook’s website included the tagline “a Mark Zuckerberg production.” 

Many of Facebook’s controversies have involved content moderation: the rules that people need to follow when posting to the site. In 2008, the company faced a backlash from breast-feeding mothers over a rule against photos containing a nipple. Meta now allows photos of uncovered female nipples in the context of breast-feeding, acts of protest and other defined exceptions. And as similar debates inevitably flared over the years, Facebook turned over the decision-making to an outside “supreme court” known as the Oversight Board. Zuckerberg says he considers the board’s decisions to be “binding.” 

But other scandals have been of Facebook’s own making, as in 2012 when Facebook allowed researchers to conduct a psychological experiment on their users, demonstrating what they called “massive-scale emotional contagion.” Researchers said they tested “reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed” for 689,003 people and found that doing so reliably altered their emotions. 

“When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts,” they wrote. 

In the paper, researchers said that Facebook users had given “informed consent” to the tests because they had agreed to Facebook’s Data Use Policy “prior to creating an account.” But a backlash ensued when the scientific paper was published in 2014, and Sheryl Sandberg, then Facebook’s chief operating officer, apologized, saying the company communicated poorly about the experiments. 

To be sure, plenty of Facebook users have found value in the service: connecting long-lost friends and family, creating communities around shared interests or experiences or raising awareness and money for charitable causes. 

But the cascade of criticism has been unrelenting, especially since the 2016 election. A Facebook employee had helped to run the Facebook advertising arm of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and Trump’s campaign credited Facebook with helping him win because of the power of the site’s targeted ads. Facebook has said it was standard practice at the time for the company to offer hands-on help to high-profile political campaigns, a service that it later scaled back. Months later, Facebook disclosed that Russian operatives had run a secret influence operation on the site, and although the scale of their impact was never clear, the disclosure changed public perceptions of the power of social media and the lack of safeguards. 

Zuckerberg had dismissed the extent of his power as late as November 2016, saying at an event that it was a “pretty crazy idea” to think that fake news on Facebook influenced the election that year. 

Another publicity firestorm exploded in 2018, when U.K. consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was accused by journalists of improperly mining data from Facebook for use in political campaigns. Experts in the field and a British government inquiry found that Cambridge Analytica’s abilities were overblown, but Meta agreed to pay $725 million to end a class-action lawsuit accusing it of failing to safeguard user data; Meta did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement. 

And the accusations got worse from there, including reports by U.N. human rights experts and Amnesty International that Facebook had played a role in spreading hate speech that led to a genocide in Myanmar. The company said in 2018 that it agreed that it wasn’t doing enough to prevent its platform from being used to incite offline violence, and it said it was spending more on people and technology to address abuse of Facebook in Myanmar. It has also said that it’s working with U.N. investigators, and the company started a team with the goal of avoiding similar instances of offline violence. 

Over the years, Zuckerberg has testified before Congress eight times, according to the online C-SPAN archives. The subjects of his appearances have ranged from Russian influence to Facebook’s compliance with antitrust laws to social media’s impact on the mental health of teenagers. 

A former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, alleged various problems at the company, including negative impacts on teen mental health, when she leaked corporate documents to The Wall Street Journal in 2021, leading to a series called “The Facebook Files.” 

And the company has battled countless lawsuits and regulatory actions, including an attempt to break up Facebook. In that case, Facebook has sought to have the case dismissed for lack of evidence; the suit is proceeding. In a series of lawsuits, school systems are demanding that Facebook and its competitors reimburse them for the indirect costs of students’ alleged social media addiction; the companies have sought to have the suits dismissed, saying they can’t be held liable under federal laws related to defective products, but have not succeeded

David Ingram

David Ingram covers tech for NBC News.

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