By Glenn CHAPMAN
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 29 (AFP) — Facebook changed its parent company name to “Meta” on Thursday as the tech giant tries to move past being a scandal-plagued social network to its virtual reality vision for the future.
The new handle comes as the company battles to fend off one of its worst crises yet and pivot to its ambitions for the “metaverse,” which would blur the lines between the physical world and the digital one.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — which are used by billions around the world — will keep their names under the rebranding critics have called an effort to distract from the platform’s dysfunction.
“We’ve learned a lot from struggling with social issues and living under closed platforms, and now it is time to take everything that we’ve learned and help build the next chapter,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during an annual developers conference.
“I am proud to announce that starting today, our company is now Meta. Our mission remains the same, still about bringing people together, our apps and their brands, they’re not changing,” he added.
The company’s critics pounced on the rebranding, with an activist group calling itself The Real Facebook Oversight Board saying the platform is harming democracy while spreading disinformation and hate.
“Their meaningless name change should not distract from the investigation, regulation and real, independent oversight needed to hold Facebook accountable,” the group said in a statement.
The social media giant has been battling one of its most serious crises ever since former employee Frances Haugen leaked reams of internal studies showing executives knew of their sites’ potential for harm, prompting a renewed US push for regulation.
Reports from a consortium of US news outlets have used those documents to produce a deluge of damning stories, including blaming Zuckerberg for his platform bending to state censors and highlighting how the site has stoked anger in the name of keeping users engaged.
Facebook noted in a filing that from September “it became subject to government investigations and requests” relating to the documents leaked to lawmakers and regulators.
The company told AFP it issued on Tuesday to employees a “legal hold,” which is an instruction to preserve documents and communications because it faces inquiries from authorities.
A Washington Post report last month suggested that Facebook’s interest in a metaverse virtual world is “part of a broader push to rehabilitate the company’s reputation with policymakers and reposition Facebook to shape the regulation of next-wave internet technologies.”
However Zuckerberg, in a more than one-hour streamed message that showed him exploring virtual reality worlds, said the vision is the future.
“Within the next decade, Metaverse will reach a billion people, post hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers,” he said.
The company noted during Zuckerberg’s presentation “a dozen major technological breakthroughs to get to the next generation metaverse.”
Facebook has just announced plans to hire 10,000 people in the European Union to build the “metaverse,” with Zuckerberg emerging as a leading promoter of the concept.
The metaverse is, in fact, the stuff of science-fiction: the term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” in which people don virtual reality headsets to interact inside a game-like digital world.
Facebook has been hit by major crises previously, but the current view behind the curtain of the insular company has fueled a frenzy of scathing reports and scrutiny from US regulators.
“Good faith criticism helps us get better, 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,” Zuckerberg said in an earnings call on Monday.
Google rebranded itself as Alphabet in a corporate reconfiguration in 2015, but the online search and ad powerhouse remains its defining unit despite other operations such as Waymo self-driving cars and Verily life sciences.