More than most companies and organizations, Facebook has, for years, been in the harsh glare of the public spotlight for their activities, policies and products.
The latest chapter for this apparently crisis-prone company—its decision yesterday to postpone rollout of a version of Instagram for children—is playing out in headlines around the world. The spotlight will get even brighter and hotter this Thursday when a Facebook executive testifies at a public hearing conducted by a U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee about the app.
What Facebook and Instagram are saying and doing about the controversy—and how they are saying and doing it—provides business leaders with important lessons about responding to, managing and communicating about crisis situations.
Instagram Head Adam Mosseri said in a news release that, “We firmly believe that it’s better for parents to have the option to give their children access to a version of Instagram that is designed for them—where parents can supervise and control their experience—than relying on an app’s ability to verify the age of kids who are too young to have an ID.
“While we stand by the need to develop this experience, we’ve decided to pause this project. This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today,” he said.
The Right Thing, But The Wrong Way
Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College thought, “Facebook and Adam Mosseri did the right thing in pulling the project for now but perhaps not in terms of how they addressed the public.
“This is an absolute powder keg with an epidemic of misinformation, effects of the pandemic and a variety of academic reports from NGOs and reporters on the harm to teens associated with Instagram use. In addition, it happens when reporters allege that Facebook knew of the report on harm to teen girls and largely dismissed it or ignored it altogether,” he said.
Putting Instagram Kids On Pause
Lightman observed that, “This represents a very large segment for Facebook/Instagram (Gen Alpha) and might represent a new captive audience as the time spent on the app has been partially eroded by Snapchat, TikTok and Discord. However, in their defense Facebook/Instagram did not even have an opportunity to discuss how the platform might work for tweens 10-12.
“So they got called out even before putting together product design and functionality and now have a moment to pause and build out the right platform addressing concerns from educators, parents, mental health practitioners, etc.,” he observed.
Lightman said, “The takeaway is to listen to the market and assess all the different risk/benefit vectors prior to initiating a campaign. Their notion that tweens are already on social media apps so this provides a way to connect in an age-appropriate way casts doubt on the ability of their platform to enforce the age limit which has steadily decreased to a pt. where it is now 13 to access the platform.
“Even though they stated they will make the platform more friendly to this user group like taking away ads, the very nature of how Instagram displays content and addresses self-image especially to a very vulnerable segment of the market.
“By not addressing this, it leaves the public in doubt associated with what substantive changes they might be able to make if they do launch the platform for tweens in the future. Being transparent and addressing concerns that might be out there as well as how they might work with advocacy groups, regulators and educators is critical for any organization looking at developing a digital platform for this age group,”
Baruch Labunski, president of Rank Secure, said that, “As a marketing expert, I understand that a company in crisis sometimes has to tackle difficult issues. It’s easier to manage a crisis when that company can choose when to make an announcement and if that company is being forthcoming and acting in the interest of the public. Neither is true in the case of Instagram Kids.
“While [Instagram head] Adam Mosseri may tell you about the wonderful safety features Instagram’s new product for kids aged 10-12 will have, that’s less credible when he’s only discussing the company’s decision to ‘pause’ their work on the app since Buzzfeed broke the story about Instagram’s internal announcement earlier this year and a deluge of criticism ensued,” he said.
Justifications Are Insufficient And Lack Credibility
Labunski noted that, “One of Mosseri’s justifications for the launch of Instagram Kids is that kids under 13 are already using Instagram, despite the platform’s rules. He says that if kids are going to use it anyway, the platform should be safer and bring with it more parental controls.
“It’s my opinion that’s simply insufficient and also not credible,” he said. “Facebook and Instagram already consume enormous amounts of the time and attention of adults. Starting kids earlier? It’s impossible for me to see how that’s in the public interest. We know that hate speech and body shaming flourish on social media platforms. Who in their right mind thinks we need to send invitations so 10-year-olds can participate?”
No Good Solutions
Mike Bienstock is CEO Semaphore, a management and licensing firm. He noted that, “YouTube has been struggling with the ‘kids issue’ for years. They developed a generation of kids channels and then destroyed them by withholding ads when things started going poorly PR-wise. In turn, so many kids’ channels slowed / stopped their uploading to YouTube.
“Facebook is likely facing the same issues – there is no good solution here. If you restrict ads, you lose the content-production machine. If you allow ads, you are ‘selling to kids’ too much, so the easiest path is to forget about programming for kids. Leave that to PBS where content is planned and created with child development in mind. It’s never going to be protected in the way children need and still survive monetarily,” he predicted.