Defying increasing scrutiny by regulators and public scepticism about social media’s value, Facebook parent company Meta has shuttered the Responsible Innovation team it established a year ago to identify potential ethical problems with its products.

Intended to demonstrate that the company was serious about addressing concerns about issues such as its widespread collection, use and sale of personal data, the Responsible Innovation team was the brainchild of Meta vice president of product design Margaret Stewart – who wrote last year that she was “optimistic” about Facebook’s efforts to build an ethical buffer for products including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and emerging technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality.

Such technologies “have the potential to improve people’s lives in myriad ways,” Stewart said at the time, and “they can also create significant challenges and raise hard questions about how to make our products beneficial and safe for all.”

“As use of these technologies grows and the influence of our platforms increases, our responsibility to surface and mitigate potential harm must as well.”

The Responsible Innovation team had grown to around two dozen staff engineers, ethicists, civil rights specialists, anthropologists, and others over the past year, the Wall Street Journal reported, with staff regularly collaborating across the company’s business units and engaging outside academics and users.

This had included consultations with over 100 product teams, with the unit responsible for design choices such as the decision not to allow users of a Facebook dating app to filter matches of a particular race.

When it was formed, Stewart lauded the unit’s work in areas such as “protecting privacy and defending the integrity of its platforms against misuse and harmful content”, highlighting the importance of a holistic approach to product design that “means not just looking at the people who use the product as intended, but the people who may misuse it to hurt others.”

That included scrutiny across ten dimensions ranging from autonomy, civic engagement, fairness and inclusion to safety, environmental sustainability, and well-being.

A year later, however, the unit has become the latest casualty of a Meta organisation that has been struggling to reverse a financial downturn that also saw its user base shrink for the first time ever earlier this year.

Most of the Responsible Innovation team’s members will be dispersed to other roles, the company said, with a focus on specific issues rather than providing a centralised ethics centre of excellence across the Meta business.

Australians are questioning social media’s value

Meta’s ethical U-turn comes at a pivotal time in the ethical evolution of AI and other technologies, as regulators and privacy advocates claw back some of the overreach caused by social media’s ubiquity and the systematic exploitation of personal data.

The impact of this trend was clear in newly released Roy Morgan research, which found that while 63.8 per cent of the 1,315 surveyed Australians believe the internet solves more problems than it creates, 71.3 per cent believe social media creates more problems than it solves.

Asked to clarify their objections to social media, respondents variously said that the medium “facilitates the spread of misinformation and foments political polarisation”; fosters the communication of news and current affairs content as “digestible and shareable nuggets devoid of nuance or objectivity”; and enabled people to “say defamatory, cruel, and otherwise unacceptable things without fear of consequence or accountability”.

Roy Morgan’s Social Media Net Distrust Score has dropped precipitously since its peak in May 2019, recovering only slightly from its April 2022 nadir – and Facebook/Meta, the firm notes, “receives most of the industry mentions and is primarily responsible for the social media sector’s high distrust scores.”

Chronically high levels of distrust in Facebook pose new problems for a company that is already wrestling with issues including squabbles with regulators; updated social media defamation laws; a US government lawsuit to block a key metaverse acquisition; revelations that the company intentionally blocked Australian news sites to make a point; and claims that its rivals have broken its long held monopoly on the market.

“The poor image of social media in the eyes of the public presents a huge challenge for the leading companies in the industry such as Meta (Facebook), Twitter and TikTok as they seek to rebuild the value of their brand equity,” Roy Morgan CEO Michel Levine said.

“Distrust starts with doubt and suspicion and quickly accelerates to fear and action. This is when customers begin to desert a brand.”