“I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
That’s what former Facebook employee and whistleblower, Frances Haugen, had to say at her senate hearing. However, this statement was just the tail-end of a horrible week for Facebook, after it began plummeting in market value and then spent six hours offline around the world.
The internet outage on October 4, caused by changes to backbone routers, cost Mark Zuckerberg $6 billion in just a few hours. His wealth has been steadily declining, losing $20 billion in recent weeks, with his ranking falling on Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index due to the release of damning documents by the Wall Street Journal. As the stories spread, Facebook lost more than 12% of its value, amounting to over $100 billion in market capitalisation.
It appears things are only set to get worse for Facebook and its CEO and co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg. In recent weeks the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a series of stories revealing Facebook’s controversial XCheck program, its impacts on the mental health of young girls and its inability to combat misinformation on its platforms.
The explosive WSJ articles rely on data leaked by a former employee and whistleblower who revealed her identity on 60 minutes on October 3. Facebook is notoriously private about its data and products which has invited many court cases against the company over the years. The exorbitant amount of data provided to the WSJ, the prime-time television debut and a week of US Senate Hearings have sent the media into a frenzy over the allegations against Facebook.
Facebook has been facing criticism for over a decade now, from the media and US lawmakers alike. Some view the recent controversies as a sign that Facebook’s best days are behind it; noting that the leaked documents reveal a company struggling to thrive organically and going to increasingly extreme lengths to stop users from dropping off.
Others, who don’t believe the social media powerhouse has reached its peak yet, have instead demanded that Facebook be treated like a “hostile foreign power.” With plans to produce its own currency, a population that rivals China and India combined, and annual ad revenues surpassing the GDPs of most nations, Facebook has almost taken on its own statehood. This domination and expansion with little to no regulation have propped Facebook up as “the largest autocracy on Earth” according to The Atlantic.
Despite a decade of struggle, legislators haven’t been able to impose policies addressing the issues of modern technology and data. However, they may now have the catalyst they need to enforce real change.
That catalyst is called Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic integrity team. After months of anonymously providing internal data to the WSJ, Haugen has now testified before the US Congress, highlighting that “no-one truly understands the destructive practices made by Facebook except Facebook” yet “the choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous, for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy and for our democracy.”
The allegations focus on Facebook’s lack of accountability and detail three prominent failures; the deteriorating mental health of teen users, the inequality personified by the XCheck program and the thriving network of human trafficking facilitated by the platform.
For years lawmakers have demanded Facebook publicise its research on the impact its platforms have on mental health but Facebook has consistently downplayed the effects and weaseled out of sharing research. The leaked reports however show that Facebook was fully aware of just how dangerous Instagram was to teenagers and that it was distinctly worse than other forms of social media.
As the WSJ reported, 13% of British teenage users and 6% of US teenage users with suicidal thoughts identified Instagram as the root of these tendencies. Moreover, “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Instagram, like other Facebook products, relies on algorithms that show incredibly personalised content based on what users have already engaged with.
This means that young girls looking at content related to self-harm or eating disorders get stuck in cycles where social media feeds continue to focus on this harmful content. In preparation for the congressional hearing, the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal created a fake Instagram account, posing as a 13-year-old girl and immediately confounded Haugen’s criticisms:
“Instagram’s recommendations will still latch on to a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerabilities about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm”
– Sen. Richard Blumenthal
Facebook is aware of these processes and has not made the necessary changes to protect and safeguard young users. Nor has it taken action against the outcomes of its Xcheck programme. Initially built to ensure quality control of high-profile accounts, it now exempts them from playing by the rules and policies of Facebook. Many of these accounts have abused this freedom, disseminating harmful material and inciting violence – material that would normally lead to sanctions.
It appears the facilitation of violence is rampant on Facebook as employees have reported a broad range of criminal activity flourishing on the platform with little action taken. The WSJ noted reports of “organ selling, pornography and government action against political dissent.” In Ethiopia, armed groups have exploited Facebook to incite violence against ethnic minorities and in the Middle East the site helped human traffickers lure women into “abusive employment situations.”
Although little action was taken in response to these atrocities, attempts Facebook has taken to improve the platform have also had harmful consequences. In 2018, Facebook dramatically altered its algorithm in the name of improving well-being and strengthening bonds. Instead, the algorithm intensified and amplified anger, biases and polarisation.
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Facebook claimed it was acting in goodwill, yet internal reports show that the algorithm change was an attempt to revive a dismal decline in user engagement. To do this, the algorithm promoted content that garnered a lot of attention and emotion, unfortunately, that emotion was more often than not, anger.
The algorithm then fed users more extreme and less nuanced content that spoked anger and division, isolating them from other viewpoints and users that thought differently. The algorithm essentially capitalised on tactics used by terrorist groups during recruitment and instead of making the necessary changes, Facebook chose to prioritise profits, allowing bubbles of extremism and misinformation to flourish on the platform.
“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money.”
– Frances Haugen.
The data produced by WSJ and Haugen’s statements in court display a clear picture of Facebook prioritising profits over people again and again with devastating consequences. Facebook has been able to avoid oversight and regulation as legislators have struggled to keep pace with technological advancement. However, with half the world logged onto Facebook and affiliate services, it is clear that if any global law and order is to be established, it must be able to tackle Big Tech.
Until now, a lack of access and understanding of how Facebook operates has hampered lawmaking. On October 4. Facebook filed a motion to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission due to a lack of evidence. A company without transparency is a company without accountability. The data leaked by Haugen has forced Facebook to reveal some of its secrets but she has little faith that Facebook will take the necessary steps to change without action from Congress.
Despite her incendiary attack against the corporation, Haugen still believes that Facebook can be a force for good and insists she doesn’t want to bring it down, only reform it. For too long Facebook and other big tech companies have acted with impunity due to a lack of transparency.
Facebook has sustained comparisons to Big Tobacco from senators due to its knowledge and concealment of the harm its products inflict. The lawmakers are eager to hold Facebook and Zuckerberg accountable for actions they regard as “inexcusable.”
Haugen has not only provided the evidence they need to do that, but also the steps that must be taken. She has called for greater transparency into Facebook’s operations; the formation of an effective oversight agency; and interventions to reduce the spread of misinformation such as requiring users to click links before sharing them.
“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change”
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: A Facebook sign backlit against a dark background. Featured Photo Credit: Alex Haney