Think of Facebook as a money maker, not a babysitter

·Editor focused on markets and the economy
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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Call Facebook what you want — but stop thinking of it as a parent

It’s a symbol of the strange times we live in when a multibillion dollar publicly traded behemoth is practically begging to be regulated, but that’s the predicament in which Facebook — under pressure from without and within — finds itself.

In recent years, the social network has survived a number of public relations disasters, including controversies over data security, use of algorithms, and seemingly permissive content moderation that’s given oxygen to anti-vaccine sentiment and January 6 protesters.

But the current fire, lit by a damning exposé in The Wall Street Journal that detailed how Instagram has become detrimental to the self-image of young girls, appears more intense than usual — especially with a whistleblower going public with her personal account of Facebook’s internal workings. It’s emboldening critics who want the platform to divulge more about its proprietary data.

“This is all stuff that frankly, Facebook is feeding the fire with because it is not giving up data and not engendering more transparency with its product,” Nina Jankowicz, Wilson Center Global fellow, told Yahoo Finance Live on Wednesday. She added that more information was necessary for the public to understand “how their algorithms govern our social media.”

Buffeted by regulators, outraged commentators , Facebook is now in the awkward position of extending an invitation to its inquisitors for more oversight, as Monika Bickert told Yahoo Finance’s Daniel Howley in an exclusive interview published on Wednesday.

It certainly looks as if Facebook’s Teflon is starting to crack, and it may get the same treatment Big Tobacco received back in the 1990s — all of which raises the question about the appropriate way to define the company.

Social network? Public utility? Private company? Publisher? Purveyor of strife and disinformation? 

All of the above?

Of all the ways Facebook can be defined or maligned, it’s arguably best to think of it as a money printing press. As a few observers have pointed out, anti-Facebook campaigns have only yielded more ad dollars and active users, underscoring how hundreds of millions want to use it to stay connected — and how companies big and small want access to those people.

Indeed, while Facebook stock has come under pressure amid the scrutiny, losing 5% on Monday alone, it’s sitting within the upper range of its 52-week trading band. That suggests investors aren’t nearly as outraged as some segments of the public are.

Facebook “provides a social media platform for people to use for free because it’s paid for by advertisers. Their source of revenue is advertising,” Tigress Financial Partners Director of Research Ivan Feinseth told Yahoo Finance Live on Wednesday.

“From the business standpoint, they have survived every scandal, including times that people say they should boycott Facebook,” he said. “It’s a platform of interaction and a platform for engagement.”

There’s also one label that Facebook cannot and should never be forced to bear: parent. 

Lost in the current firestorm is that using the platform is entirely voluntary, and that users — or those responsible for their welfare — can either unplug completely, or exercise stricter jurisdiction over how long they’re on the platform.

In a recent article, New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz hit the nail right on the head. She exhorted parents to stop thinking about social media as a babysitter — or act as if it's depriving full-grown adults of their agency.

“We don’t need to give social media such power over us. If you’ve gotten to where your social media is making you feel bad, stop using it,” Markowicz wrote. “Stop pretending it’s akin to crack addiction, and just make the decision to make yourself happier by shutting out the voices telling you you’re not good enough.”

Touché.

By Javier E. David, editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him at @Teflongeek

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