Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came out swinging at the start of the company’s third-quarter earnings call Monday, defending its research on how its services affect users, following numerous press reports Monday based on documents leaked by a former employee.
“Good faith criticism helps us get better,” Zuckerberg said. “But my view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company. The reality is that we have an open culture, where we encourage discussion and research about our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook does this work “because we care about getting this right.”
The reports came from a consortium of 17 news outlets in the U.S. that were provided internal research by Frances Haugen, a former employee who also provided the documents to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission, seeking whistleblower status. They follow an earlier series based on the same documents by The Wall Street Journal, which prompted hearings in Congress and abroad.
The reports revealed that Facebook had been aware of the ways its own services could negatively impact some users’ mental health, push polarized recommendations to users and spread potentially dangerous misinformation. While Facebook has taken steps to make its platform safer on all of these counts, the company’s detractors say it hasn’t acted boldly or quickly enough.
A theme in Zuckerberg’s argument was that the problems Facebook experiences are a reflection of society.
“These issues aren’t primarily about social media,” Zuckerberg said. “That means that no matter what Facebook does, we’re never going to solve them on our own.”
He said polarization began rising in the U.S. “before I was born” while pointing to unspecified research finding that countries with similar social media use have seen stagnant or declining polarization.
He said Facebook often needs to choose between a host of trade-offs, such as providing encryption versus supporting law enforcement investigations.
“It makes a good sound bite to say that we don’t solve these impossible trade-offs because we’re just focused on making money, but the reality is these questions are not primarily about our business, but about balancing different difficult social values,” he said.
Zuckerberg said he has called for regulation so that companies like Facebook aren’t the ones that have to choose between those trade-offs.
He said he’s proud of the research Facebook has done and emphasized the company’s investments in safety and security measures.
But, he said, he worries the response to Facebook’s research could create negative incentives for other businesses to do similar work.
“I worry about the incentives that we are creating for other companies to be as introspective as we have been,” he said. “But I am committed to continuing this work because I believe it will be better for our community and our business over the long term.”
A new ‘North Star’
Toward the end of his opening statement, Zuckerberg announced a new strategic vision for the future of the platform. He said that rather than make Facebook a place that caters to the greatest number of people, it will now place a greater focus on young adults, ages 18-29.
“We are retooling our teams to make serving young adults their North Star, rather than optimizing for the larger number of older people,” Zuckerberg said. “Like everything, this will involve trade-offs in our product, and it will likely mean the rest of our community will grow more slowly than it otherwise would have. But it should also mean that our services become stronger for young adults.”
Zuckerberg said the shift would take “years, not months.”
That change and others Zuckerberg mentioned, including refreshing Facebook and Instagram to put an emphasis on video and leaning into its Reels short video product, would make the platform more similar to TikTok and go after an important part of its user base. Zuckerberg pointed to TikTok as one of the most formidable competitors it’s seen.
Facebook often brings up TikTok’s rapid growth when faced with questions about its own vast power, which is the subject of an antitrust complaint brought by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has accused Facebook of illegally maintaining a monopoly in the personal social networking space, in part through its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.
Several reports from the leaked documents showed Facebook has increasingly worried about the lack of engagement on its main platform among younger users, which would create an existential threat to its future. Still, the focus on young adults, rather than teens under 18, could ease pressure from lawmakers and others who have warned Facebook against making a version of its products for kids.