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Facebook at a crossroads as it rides huge profits, battles backlash

Thirteen years after Facebook launched from Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room, the company is at the pinnacle of success but facing its biggest PR crisis yet.
Image: Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process
Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, are photographed in Washington, on Nov. 1, 2017. The ads, dozens of which were disclosed for the first time, were released as representatives of leading social media companies faced criticism on Capitol Hill about why they hadn't done more to combat Russian interference on their sites and prevent foreign agents from meddling in last year's election.Jon Elswick / AP file

Thirteen years after Facebook launched from Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room, the company is sitting at a crossroads as it tries to convince the public it might not be as scary as it currently seems.

Facebook, a tool initially designed to connect college students — and then the rest of the world — is now grappling with how to get a handle on the unchecked power it was never even intended to have.

"Even before this Russian stuff, people felt manipulated by Facebook," Jen Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland's College of Information Studies, told NBC News.

Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process, as released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee in November 2017.Jon Elswick / AP file

Related: Google, Facebook, Twitter and Russia: A timeline on the 2016 election

In the past year or so, Facebook has faced battles on several fronts, from allegations of censorship after it removed an iconic Vietnam War photo that featured "Napalm Girl," naked and running from her bombed village, to a lack of monitoring after a number of Facebook Live suicides and the seemingly random murder of a Cleveland grandfather that was live streamed on Easter Sunday.

These issues have forced Facebook to take a look at how it can better leverage technology and human moderators to help people in need — and to rid the site of violent content.

Out of touch

Then there's the perception of a CEO who wants to connect the world — but whom some have called out of touch.

Over the past year, Zuckerberg has been on a tour of the United States, hoping to connect with a wide swath of Americans who may have previously felt like their voices hadn't been heard.

"My work is about connecting the world and giving everyone a voice. I want to personally hear more of those voices this year," he wrote in a blog post.

Since then, he's done everything from touring a car assembly line in Michigan to waking up early to work on a farm in Wisconsin. But it doesn't seem to be doing much for his image, other than fueling speculation of future political ambitions.

Zuckerberg's Q Score, which is a metric employed by Marketing Evaluations Inc. to measure the public's perception of public figures, hasn't undergone any significant changes.

His positive score, that's the number of people who count him among their favorite public figures, went from 14 to 16 percent for the period between January 2016 and September 2017. His negative Q score ticked up one point higher during that period, to 23 percent.

Zuckerberg received more backlash in October when his cartoon avatar took a tour of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. While some called it "voyeuristic tourism," Zuckerberg said he was using it as an opportunity to show how virtual reality can foster empathy.

"Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn't clear, and I'm sorry to anyone this offended," he said.

Yet Zuckerberg's biggest faux pas came days after the 2016 presidential election when he dismissed as "pretty crazy" any idea that misinformation on Facebook could have influenced voters — a comment he later said he regretted, especially after tens of thousands of intentionally divisive Facebook posts were found to have been peppered across the social network by Kremlin-backed agitators.

Related: Whose responsibility is it to police Facebook?

During a hearing last month about the role the platform played in helping Russians interfere in American politics, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana summed up what so many users are feeling in 2017.

"I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me,” he told Facebook's general counsel Colin Stretch.

By traditional measures, Facebook is thriving. Profits exceeded $10 billion last quarter. But CEO Zuckerberg said "none of that matters if our services are used in ways that don't bring people closer together."

"We're serious about preventing abuse on our platforms. We're investing so much in security that it will impact our profitability," he said. "Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”

User beware

While Facebook's all-important user number is a healthy two billion, there are some people who are now re-evaluating their decision to remain on the platform. It stems from a frustration over Facebook's algorithms and oft-criticized response when it comes to being transparent about what the company knew about Russian meddling on the social network, according to users who spoke with NBC News.

"The reasons for wanting to leave have changed over time. Initially it was because Facebook seemed more of a platform for people to boast about their last meal than as a place to connect and keep in touch," David Buckingham of Bozeman, Montana, told NBC News. "It then morphed to a distaste for polarizing and divisive posts from friends and family — and an exhaustion from trying to reason with them regarding those posts."

When asked by NBC News for information on how many users deactivated or deleted their accounts in the past year, a Facebook representative said the company had nothing to add. However, Facebook's daily and monthly active user numbers have healthily increased each quarter.

While deactivating your account can be done in a few quick steps, fully deleting your Facebook account isn't an easy process.

Facebook delays deletion requests for a few days and says it may take up to 90 days to delete your data stored in backup systems. Even then, you're not entirely scrubbed from Facebook. Copies of some materials, such as log records, may be kept but disassociated from any personal identifying information, according to Facebook.

Matt, a college junior in Miami who asked that NBC News not use his last name, said he decided to deactivate his account nearly one year ago after he became concerned about the News Feed algorithm surfacing information it thought he should see — instead of what he actually wanted.

"In a way, it makes me feel smarter because I know I am not going to be susceptible to anything that is false," he told NBC News. He said he doesn't plan to return to Facebook.

Matt said he prefers other social apps for keeping in touch with friends, such as Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) and Snapchat, which he said he prefers because the videos are often in real-time.

"The idea that people want to quit Facebook is one we hear a lot," Golbeck said. "But it is hard to do because social media has become the way we do a lot of our social interactions at this point. If you quit Facebook, you are going to miss out on a lot of information."

What next?

While the company is facing its biggest image crisis yet, what Golbeck said will matter is more transparency and fulfilling the promise Zuckerberg made to invest in solutions to help Facebook correct course.

In 2018, Facebook expects its spending to surge as much as 60 percent. One reason is “sizable security investments in people and technology," Zuckerberg said. Shareholders noticed — and one day after Facebook's blockbuster earnings report, the company's stock slid by 2 percent.

"If they want to rebuild trust in the eyes of the American public, they are going to have to be more transparent. It will cost them some money to do that, but it’s worth it given what happened," Golbeck said. "It’s a tough internal decision they will have to make."

But perhaps, more than anything, what Golbeck, members of Congress, and plenty of users want the most is openness and accountability from Facebook, a stretch for a company that took one year before it was forced to open up — ever so slightly — about what it knew about the Russian-linked ads that reached as many as 126 million Americans.

"What I would like to see, they really acknowledge the role they’re playing," Golbeck said. "They’re not the startup in someone’s garage."