On 4 February 2004, a dorky-looking Mark Zuckerberg launched “TheFacebook” to his Harvard classmates, in the 20 years that followed, the website — subsequently rebranded to Facebook — went on to change the world.
The platform’s impact on society cannot be understated. When a fresh-faced Zuckerberg launched it back in 2004, few could have predicted that entire industries — from the news media to advertising and beyond — would be turned upside down entirely.
Even fewer would have predicted that Zuckerberg would wind up in front of the US Senate defending his company’s record on child sexual exploitation. Just last week, Republican Senators including Josh Hawley and Lindsey Graham piled in on Zuck.
“Mr. Zuckerberg, you have blood on your hands,” said Graham in an opening statement that drew applause.
Hawley, meanwhile, persistently urged Zuckerberg to apologise to the victims. Responding to this, Zuckerberg turned to the crowd, where many families held photos of their lost loved ones and expressed his regret.
“No one should go through the things your families have suffered,” he acknowledged. He also mentioned that Meta is committing to “industry-leading efforts” to prevent such incidents in the future”.
Facebook would also go on to have far-ranging impacts on elections and democracy the world over. In 2017, the platform was cited as a tool that inspired the attempted Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
“The Rohingya were killed, tortured, raped, and displaced in the thousands as part of the Myanmar security forces’ campaign of ethnic cleansing. In the months and years leading up to the atrocities, Facebook’s algorithms were intensifying a storm of hatred against the Rohingya which contributed to real-world violence,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general last year.
It also emerged to prominence at a time when election laws were not set up to deal with social media. Euan MacDonald, digital lead at Melbourne media agency Half Dome, told B&T that he had experienced every facet of advertising on Facebook, working with businesses of all sizes to small- and large-scale political campaigns.
“Elections have been won or lost depending on how much was spent on Meta [Facebook’s parent company]. I’ve worked on independent campaigns that hinged on getting the most frequency and reach on Facebook because it was the easiest way they could mass-reach an audience, other than standing outside a train station and handing out leaflets,” he explained.
“Six or seven years ago, when I was working on those campaigns, there were no major rules for advertising on Facebook other than the existing political advertising rules — that you could go up to a certain date and then you’d have to stop” MacDonald continued.
“Nowadays, Facebook has become a lot more regulated with having to declare who you are and how you work for a party, so there’s a lot more red tape. Especially back in the day, it was a very easy way to target people down to a postcode level, candidates go in and say ‘We’re not polling as well in this suburb’ and spend $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 — it’s not a lot of money — to really increase our exposure to people on a platform where they spend two, three, or four hours a day”.
Regardless, the company continues to generate billions of dollars from its advertising products. In Q4 2023, Meta’s advertising revenues jumped by 24 per cent year-on-year to $US38 billion ($AU58.8 billion).
“We had a good quarter as our community and business continue to grow,” said Zuckerberg, “we’ve made a lot of progress on our vision for advancing AI and the metaverse.”
Who knows what the next 20 years will hold?
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