Facebook’s reform promises are not reassuring. It’s a sick joke. | Remark
After whistleblower Frances Haugen unleashed a torrent of unflattering Facebook revelations in the Wall Street Journal and on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” the social media giant pledged to “fight the spread of disinformation and harmful content ”. But as long as the social network is making money from such garbage, such a promise comes across as an unhealthy joke rather than insurance.
I have never been a staunch enemy of Facebook, although I have never been an ordinary user. I spent time with some of Facebook’s senior executives (except Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg) and found them to be brilliant, personable, and great at projecting social awareness. Their products, however, are very different. Haugen’s leaks make it clear how vast the gap is between the friendly facade and the ugly reality.
Haugen worked at Facebook as part of a team that was supposed to find a way to prevent the platform from being used to interfere in the elections. She left after two years, disappointed and disillusioned. After reading the Journal series of articles and watching the “60 Minute” interview, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that “misinformation and harmful content” is a feature of the platform, not a bug. .
Perhaps Haugen’s most explosive claim is that Facebook executives are aware that Instagram – which Facebook owns and operates, and which has been a center of growth for the company as its major customers age – is toxic to the mental health of some users, especially adolescent girls. Young, vulnerable Instagram users can spend hours each day scrolling through photos and blaming themselves for not living up to the unrealistic standards of plasticine “beauty” that proliferate there.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen said on “60 Minutes”. “And Facebook, time and time again, has chosen to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
Haugen also alleges that, as Facebook tightened its policies against inflammatory political disinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election, the company again relaxed those policies as soon as the election ended. We know the result: Much of the ‘Stop the Steal’ nonsense – a gunned lie alleging widespread electoral fraud, encouraged by President Donald Trump, which fueled the violent January 6 insurgency on Capitol Hill – circulated on Facebook .
Instead of blaming Facebook, replied the company’s head of global affairs Nick Clegg, we should blame “the perpetrators of the violence, and those in politics and elsewhere who actively encouraged them.” He argues that Facebook is not a “root cause” of the polarization that divides the country into warring tribes.
But is that supposed to absolve the company? Do Facebook executives feel blameless because their decisions simply facilitated the spread of a dangerous lie, with deadly consequences? By all means, do justice to the rioters. But Facebook’s hand twist isn’t exactly convincing.
Facebook can’t deny that its algorithms amplify toxic disinformation. I wholeheartedly believe in free speech, so yes people should have the right to say crazy things. But there is a difference between allowing users to post vile nonsense and feeding someone who “likes” that nonsense more with the same bile.
It seems the company gets it. If Zuckerberg can reduce the heat as the election draws near, he can simmer it afterwards. Perhaps this would come at the expense of some of the engagement that keeps users logged in to Facebook and exposed to advertising. But what counts as sufficient profit? This trillion-dollar company, with nearly 3 billion users worldwide, should be able to survive without jeopardizing democracy and without distressing impressionable young people.
If Facebook doesn’t take the need for reform seriously, governments need to act at the federal level and perhaps at the state level.
One obvious but drastic solution would be to classify social media sites not as platforms but as publishers. As such, they would have the same responsibility for disseminating false, defamatory or otherwise damaging information as the editors of the Washington Post and other media. They could be sued for pecuniary damages – a prospect that tends to focus the mind.
But in the news media, publishers control the content. How many publishers would Facebook need to comb through everything users have posted? Millions?
A less drastic step would be for Facebook to be completely transparent about how its algorithms work and the process of adjusting them. It would still require a considerable number of humans to oversee the process and ensure that the algorithms were doing their job.
But what is no longer acceptable is the status quo. In pursuit of profit, Facebook has cost us too much.
– Eugene Robinson is on Twitter @Eugene_Robinson.