“There’s no doubt that Instagram played a part in Molly’s death.” The words of a father grieving his teenage daughter’s suicide, published today in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper, will carry loud and clear all the way to Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California. The specifics here, as with other similar cases, represent a family tragedy. For social media in general, and Facebook in particular, the question now is how will they respond.
This comes as the news breaks that Facebook plans to integrate Instagram (and WhatsApp) much more tightly with its core, enabling users across all three platforms to share messages and information more easily - and of course to continue to leverage the advertising power of the brands and their unrivaled data and reach. Facebook is under immense pressure following criticism from many quarters for data exploitation, lack of privacy controls, information security and dubious data trading. This has serious implications for the glossy world of Instagram and its influencers, notwithstanding the tragic accusations now being leveled.
Facebook Takes Control
It’s notable that until now, Instagram has managed to remain healthily detached from the issues that have plagued Facebook over the last twelve months. Instagram revenue has soared towards double-digit billions as it leverages the power of Facebook’s ad platform, albeit there may be a knock-on from ads being pulled from Facebook in light of its recent troubles.
That said, the expectation from many is that Instagram is set to become the dominant growth driver within Facebook, accounting for the majority of its ad revenues. More than 1 billion active monthly users. More than 4 billion daily ‘likes’. And brands generating tenfold the engagement on Instagram over Facebook. These are the stats that matter in the world of social media advertising.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, of course, and there were potential warning signs when Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger quit the social media giant last year. The implication was that this was prompted by the same loss of autonomy that prompted WhatsApp’s founders to do the same. But that hasn’t yet stalled growth or taken the filtered gloss from the photo platform.
Alongside Google (and to a lesser extent Amazon), Facebook has been accused of perpetrating the “surveillance capitalism” that has turned billions of people around the world into a commodity product, there for the taking with staggeringly efficient and effective algorithms ensuring that almost everything we see is designed to pull dollars from our pockets or shape our mindsets.
As venture capitalist Roger McNamee, a key early influence on Mark Zuckerberg, told Time last week: "To feed its AI and algorithms, Facebook gathered data anywhere it could. Before long, Facebook was spying on everyone, including people who do not use Facebook. Unfortunately for users, Facebook failed to safeguard that data. Facebook sometimes traded the data to get better business deals. These things increased user count and time-on-site, but it took another innovation to make Facebook’s advertising business a giant success."
Instagram could not be better suited to data farming of this kind. It is the clear global leader in the social media ‘influencer’ bubble that has become the marketer’s ultimate dream. By some estimates, the value of this influencer market is set for fivefold growth from 2017 to 2020, reaching as much as $10 billion.
The 2018 Turning Point
Facebook is seeking to recover the loss of public trust following a year of PR fire-fighting. Cambridge Analytica shone a brighter light than ever before on the ugly world of data-trading, and that was followed by data breaches and alleged links to Russia and the Brexit and Trump campaigns. We will not soon forget the tortuous sight of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress in April.
Not that Instagram hasn’t faced battles of its own. As the platform has commercialized, the blurred lines between sharing and influencing have become much more of an issue. Over the last 12 months, the platform has come under increasing pressure to ensure its “insta celebs” come clean on which photos they are being paid or rewarded for posting. Following a regulatory investigation, last week a number of its biggest stars agreed to provide far more transparency, even where rewards came in the form of “out of the blue” freebies.
But the news in recent days that families have accused Instagram, alongside other platforms such as Pinterest, with hosting and distributing content that has contributed to mental health issues and subsequent suicides of teens could be one of the toughest tests yet for the platform. And coming at the same time as Facebook stock analysts highlight the monetization potential of Instagram as the primary driver of future Facebook growth this is bad timing, to say the least.
In his interview, the father of Molly Russell said that “the more I looked, the more there was that chill horror that I was getting a glimpse into something that was unknown to me and had such profound effects on my lovely daughter. We went to one [account] Molly was following and what we found was just horrendous. They seemed to be completely encouraging of self-harm, linking depression to self-harm and to suicide, making it seem inevitable, normal, graphically showing things like cutting, biting, burning, bruising, taking pills. It was there, hiding in plain sight. We only looked at two sites because they were so harrowing and that’s what began it.”
In an investigation, the newspaper then created a fake 14-year-old’s account on Pinterest with the right triggers to test the algorithm. Sure enough, pictures relating to suicide came through. And when the same newspaper made more than twenty complaints to Instagram about similar images, they were all rejected.
Facebook's VP for Northern Europe told the BBC that he was "deeply upset" at the accusations, albeit "this is a really complicated issue," and "an incredibly tricky area to get right."
Matt Hancock, the UK’s Health Secretary, has now written to social media platforms, telling them that “it is appalling how easy it still is to access this content online and I am in no doubt about the harm this material can cause, especially for young people. It is time for internet and social media providers to step up and purge this content once and for all.”
These are trying times for Facebook, in an op-ed this week for the Wall Street Journal, Mark Zuckerberg said that “for us, technology has always been about putting power in the hands of as many people as possible. If you believe in a world where everyone gets an opportunity to use their voice and an equal chance to be heard, where anyone can start a business from scratch, then it’s important to build technology that serves everyone. That’s the world we’re building for every day, and our business model makes it possible.”
The devil, as they say, is in the detail.
Also this week, it has been revealed that Facebook plans to integrate the back-end platforms underpinning its own messaging service with those of its two marquee acquisitions: WhatsApp and Instagram. The quid pro quo from the company has been a promise to increase the use of end-to-end encryption, the add-on that has cemented WhatsApp’s position as the premier instant messaging platform, globally. The challenge for Facebook is that the business driver for the integration is information sharing, allowing users to message cross-platforms, and, of course, data exploitation. Facebook’s track-record in privacy and security has left a lot to be desired this year. It has been no surprise that the news of this integration has sent alarm bells ringing everywhere except in the offices of rivals such as Signal, Wickr and Telegram.
Will Anything Actually Change?
Facebook stock analysts are big fans of Instagram. Its business model has proven resilient to scale and scandal. It continues to commercialize. It has been the greatest driver of pop culture in the latest phase of social media growth and expansion, largely seeing off its smaller but more innovative rival Snapchat.
But it is clear that Facebook will need to deal with content policing far more effectively to keep Instagram’s glossy filter intact. It has become the go-to for the young, hardest to reach demographic that has largely turned away from Facebook’s core. Perhaps the greatest trick Zuckerberg and his team pulled off over recent years is to continue to grow Instagram (and WhatsApp) whilst 'half-kidding' the user bases that they were associated with, rather than part of, the main platform. That game may now be well and truly over.
If the privacy, data and trust issues that have hit Facebook now pollute these other businesses, it will be a major issue and one that will hit the bottom line. And if that happens, there will be plenty more op-eds and advertising campaigns required.