Facebook has become a colossus in social media all over the globe, along with the companies it purchased like Instagram and WhatsApp. It has become so big, its power and influence so widespread, that it is seen a threat to the well-being of societies. The various abuses that it has been associated with, such as enabling the fomenting of hate and divisiveness in societies that have led to genocidal actions, have been well-documented. After each such revelation, Facebook executives come before various bodies and go through the same ritual. They claim that they just provide a communication platform for people to express their views and that it is not their fault if other people abuse their platform. They then promise to try and implement safeguards that will minimize the risks of damage. But nothing they claim they are doing seems to work and the cycle gets repeated.
The recent testimony by Frances Haugen, a whistleblower within the company who released a cache of internal documents reveals how hollow are the protestations of Mark Zuckerberg and senior executives of the company that their good intentions are being thwarted by evil actors. She says that the company thrives on the mess it creates.
Haugen appeared in Washington on Tuesday after coming forward as the source of a series of revelations in the Wall Street Journal last month based on internal Facebook documents. They revealed the company knew Instagram was damaging teenagers’ mental health and that changes to Facebook’s News Feed feature – a central plank of users’ interaction with the service – had made the platform more polarising and divisive.
She told senators on Tuesday that Facebook knew Instagram users were being led to anorexia-related content. She said an algorithm “led children from very innocuous topics like healthy recipes … all the way to anorexia-promoting content over a very short period of time”.
In her opening testimony, Haugen, 37, said: “I’m here today because 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.” She added that Facebook was “buying its profits with our safety”. In 2020, Facebook reported a net income – a US measure of profit – of more than $29bn (£21bn).
One of the winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Price, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, also launched a stinging attack on the company, saying that it is a threat to democracy, that it was “biased against facts”, failed to prevent the spread of misinformation and “prioritise[s] the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts”.
The problem with Facebook is that its entire business model depends on two key elements: (1) growth in the number of ‘desirable users’, meaning those in the younger demographic in the developed world that are most sought after by advertisers, and (2) an increase in the amount of time people spend on the site.
It should not be surprising that Facebook does a ton of research on how to drive up those numbers in order to generate algorithms that will achieve those goals. But what Haugen revealed is that when confronted with their own research that shows that the way to drive up those numbers means using techniques that foster hate and divisiveness and create mental health issues for younger people, Facebook invariably chose to ignore the dangers and plowed ahead.
As an example, Facebook’s own research showed that young people, especially girls, can suffer serious self-image issues the more time they spend of Facebook. But Facebook ignored that in an effort to attract more of them by starting something called Instagram Kids. The uproar over that move has resulted in a pause on Instagram Kids.
Another feature that Facebook knows about and that it exploits is that generating outrage results in people spending more time on their site. So the algorithms drive their users down rabbit holes that feed the outrage and it is not surprising that people end up in places that cater to extreme views and conspiracy theories. This explains why we now have escalating levels of outlandish claims and hyperventilating rhetoric. Outrage is a a beast that requires ever-increasing levels of toxicity to be satiated and that requires more time spent on the site.
Facebook has started its usual apology tour, the song-and-dance act it goes into whenever there is a fresh revelation of its awful practices, though they are finding it hard to tap dance around Haugen’s insider testimony.
The Facebook executive Nick Clegg took a damage-limitation tour of US political talkshows on Sunday, but remained evasive over questions about the social media giant’s contribution to the deadly attack on the US Capitol on 6 January this year.
The former British deputy prime minister, now Facebook vice-president of global affairs, was responding to a barrage of damaging claims from the whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Appearing before a Senate committee this week, Haugen said a proliferation of misinformation and unchecked hate speech on Facebook helped encourage the pro-Trump mob that stormed Congress, seeking to overturn the election result.
Clegg insisted individuals were responsible for their own actions on 6 January, and would not say if he believed Facebook bore any responsibility for amplifying toxic messaging such as Donald Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election.
“Given that we have thousands of algorithms and millions of people using it, I can’t give you a yes or no answer to individual personalised feeds each person uses,” Clegg told CNN’s State of the Union.
A week ago, Clegg criticized suggestions that social media contributed to the insurrection as “ludicrous”, and strongly resisted claims that Facebook ignored problems on its platform.
But after Haugen’s searing testimony that Facebook was harming children and damaging democracy globally in its quest to place “astronomical profits before people”, Clegg cut a more contrite figure on CNN, NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week.
Tech reporter Kevin Roose argues that what he sees in the revelations is a company that is in a desperation mode. He says that what keeps Facebook executives up at night is not the threats of lawsuits (that it has ample resources to fight) or fines (that it can easily afford to pay) or Congressional investigations or government regulations (that it feels that it can circumvent) but an existential threat that they cannot control: they are losing the desired younger demographic that is the key to their revenue stream. He points out that social media companies come and go as young people’s tastes change and that Facebook may be seeing its future as similar to that of Friendster and MySpace, both major players of their time that eventually became irrelevant. While Facebook has outlasted them, it is already seen by young people as a space for old people, which is a devastating image for the company..
All these problems have led to speculations that Facebook may be on the way out, sooner than we may think.
It won’t be soon enough for me.