LWL #32 Facebook, the Promise and the Peril


When speaking about the purpose of his company, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying, “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” This leads to a very important question, is Facebook itself living up to this standard? According to a recent whistleblower, the answer is no. Considering Facebook’s global prominence, with over 2.89 billion active monthly users worldwide, and ever more common scandals and public demands for transparency, questions regarding its potential to either help or harm the world have grown more important than ever.

According to Facebook’s mission statement, it aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In many ways, the case can be made that it is accomplishing this goal. In economic terms, the numbers are staggering. The company is “worth” approximately US$280 billion, with an even higher market capitalization. Additionally, there are over 90 million small businesses active on Facebook, giving them access to a huge base of potential customers. Facebook is also a leading contributor to open-source projects and can be very helpful in the event of an emergency. It is also important to consider the  “connections” it helps to facilitate. With so many users (and even more when counting Facebook-owned platforms Instagram and WhatsApp), it is possible for individuals to stay in touch with friends and family all over the world. There is even a good chance that you found this article from a link on social media. 

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately, many have arisen during Facebook’s stratospheric rise. The company has been accused of enabling the spread of misinformation that increases political polarization, as well as serious concerns regarding the handling of user’s private information (the reason you’ve probably heard of “Cambridge Analytica”). Perhaps the most serious allegations are those related to Facebook’s role in allowing the propagation of hate speech, which contributed to the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Many of these problems have been blamed on the company’s algorithm, which is said to prioritize engagement, regardless of the negative impacts caused to users and society as a whole.  

More recently, two major events have compounded the troubles facing the company. The first was a major outage, which lasted for over five hours, disrupting communication for billions of users around the world and costing millions of dollars in losses. The second is the emergence of whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee in the company’s Civic Integrity division. In her testimony before the United States Senate, Haugen accused her former employer of creating a “system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization”. She went on to accuse the company of ignoring the harm it’s products cause to self-esteem and mental health, especially for young girls. She says this happened without the knowledge of the outside world, calling into question the “transparency” Mark Zuckerberg has described as Facebook’s “reason for being”. 

In this edition of Links We Like, we examine the recent controversies surrounding Facebook (and other platforms), to gain a better understanding of the impact social media is having on us, both on a personal and global level.  

As part of the “Facebook Files” series in The Journal, a podcast created by the Wall Street Journal and Gimlet, Kate Linebaugh interviewed Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. During the interview, Frances discussed  her experience working on Facebooks’ Civic Integrity team and  the breaking point when she decided she must go public with the information she had learned regarding Facebook’s management of hate speech, misinformation, and harmful content. Frances recalls how Facebook created the Civic Integrity team to avoid a repeat of the events of 2016  in the 2020 election. When analyzing the situation with her team, Frances was shocked to see the numerous threats the company faced,  which couldn’t be solved before the election. Additionally, she participated in Virality Review meetings where the Social Cohesion team reviewed the top viral posts in at-risk countries and found the horrific images that went viral in places with threats of genocide. Following this encounter, she learned the Civic Integrity team was being shut down. This was the final breaking point, as she had lost  trust in Facebook, after seeing that they had so much information about the impact of the platform and still went on to dismantle the team. At this point she decided to speak out. Now Frances’ goal is for the public to have enough information to make choices on what laws should be enacted to regulate Facebook and to  advocate for algorithm governance.

Social media is really the “embodiment” of paradox: it is where prominent athletes (e.g. Naomi Osaka, Simon Biles, and Michael Phelps) have advocated for social media as a place to open conversations about their lives and the difficulties they face on a daily basis (usually in silence). However, it is also the space where detractors have called them yes, olympic athletes“snowflakes”, and where 17% of teenage girls with eating disorders claim to have experienced worsening symptoms after Instagram use, according to the study leaked by Facebook’s whistleblower. While the project featured here, from the Pew Research Center, is from 2018, the findings continue to illustrate this paradox, and provide an in-depth view of teenagers’ experiences in the digital world, using enlightening data and charts (such as the one shared below). Check out the link to explore all the findings this project revealed.

Data refers to overall prevalence rates by threat tactic, in %. Source: The Economist Intelligence unit

As Facebook continues facing various investigations and accusations from the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, tech reporters such as Scott Nover have been analyzing why the whistleblower insists she does not want to harm the company, but rather to fix it. In a blogpost published at Quartz, Nover explains that Facebook has been facing an “avalanche of issues”, including data privacy concerns, misinformation, hate speech, enabling autocrats, destabilizing developing nations, making people angrier, and  creating an overall insecure environment. These issues have led to significant financial losses, but it got much worse on October 5 when the whistleblower testified before the US Senate. Her testimony came directly after Facebook had one of the largest outages in its history, which led to millions of dollars in losses. In this context, Nover argues that the whistleblower’s rationale is not for the company to break up, thus having Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp operate as individual entities. The author explains that doing this would not necessarily solve the company’s problems, as was highlighted by Chinmayi Arun from Harvard and Yale Law Schools. The whistleblower’s rationale is that the algorithm must be fixed. She stated that Facebook currently prioritizes engagement and this is reflected in the way its algorithms work. What the whistleblower really wants is for the government to intervene and either force Facebook to audit its algorithms or create a new regulatory agency that will do so.

Facebook has experienced rapid growth in recent years, but reports have shown a decrease in usage amongst teenagers. According to Bloomberg, a study conducted by a group of  Facebook researchers revealed a troubling trend that seems to be accelerating: Facebook is losing popularity with teens and young adults. The  evidence shows that time-spent by teenagers on Facebook decreased by 16% each year. The impact,  according to Kurt Wagner and David McLaughlin’s analysis of the whistle-blower’s message, is that this trend is making  young users largely invisible to the outside world. Subsequently, the platform is potentially disconnecting young people from families and friends, blocking the creation and sustainability of social networks, promoting uncompetitiveness,, and interestingly, acting as a weapon against the sharing of ideas and best practices. Based on these insights, a strong case can be made for Facebook whistle blower’s  Frances Haugen accusations that the company is prioritizing profit over safety and security, which possibly underpins its low usage among teens. Keeping this in mind, it can be inferred that the profit margins for businesses selling teen’s products will be significantly reduced if the trend continues. While research efforts have been strengthened, the whistle-blower believes that promoting safety and security over profits will be vital to break this barrier. Until then, the number of young adults on Facebook will continue to fall by 4% in the next two years.

Going back to Myanmar’s coup, Facebook has proved that it can be used to spread hate speech and misinformation. Being the largest platform in the world with 3.1 billion users, it has been the center of attention for more than one whistleblower event. A new whistleblower and a former Facebook member of Facebook’s Integrity team, had submitted an affidavit that “the company prizes growth and profits over combating hate speech, misinformation and other threats to the public.” The allegation’s support several declared previously by Frances Haugen and another former Facebook employee. The new whistleblower criticized Facebook for not being aggressive enough in addressing hatred, and “its failure to adequately police its online groups.” The submitted affidavit discusses several problematic contents as well as other previous filings from 2017 that address criminal and dangerous behaviour on its platforms, on Whatsapp, Messenger and Instagram.



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