Facebook knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands.
That is the central finding of a Wall Street Journal series, based on a review of internal Facebook documents, including research reports, online employee discussions, and drafts of presentations to senior management.
Time and again, the documents show, the researchers at Facebook have identified the platform’s ill effects.
And, despite congressional hearings, its own pledges, and numerous media exposés, the company has not fixed them.
The documents offer perhaps the clearest picture thus far of how broadly the Facebook problems are known inside the company, up to the chief executive himself.
To boot, last week, a woman named Frances Haugen went on 60 Minutes to describe all of the documents she gathered during her two-year tenure.
Haugen is protected as a whistleblower by the SEC and will continue to work with lawmakers to provide documentation and information as it relates to “the company’s lack of openness about its platforms’ potential for harm and unwillingness to address its flaws.”
My Conspiracy Theory
Isn’t it a strange coincidence that the day after the Facebook whistleblower was on 60 Minutes, all Facebook properties went down for an entire day?
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say they took everything down on purpose because, as it turns out, ALL of the headlines on Monday were about them being down, not about Frances Haugen.
It’s all very Wag the Dog (which I’m sure just aged me).
Creating a crisis to deflect from the real one.
But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, even though it is kind of fun to imagine they might do something like this.
I don’t have enough trust in their senior leadership to adamantly defend them, but it’s unlikely that’s what they did.
Although, maybe a good hack was all it took.
It was fun to watch the engineering department of one of our tech clients armchair QB it, though.
It sounds like, in the end, the systems went down and no one could get in the building because the system that operated the doors also operates their internet properties.
Seems pretty risky to me, but I’m also not an engineer.
The Big Outage
Anywho. Neither here nor there.
Facebook, Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp are all back up and everyone is talking about the big outage and not about the fact that Frances Haugen testified before Congress—but not before she had a website created with a contact form for media inquiries.
Seems a little disingenuous to me, but I also haven’t ever had to put my literal life on the line to do something I believed was the best for society.
In the work we do with clients, I have learned far too much about the dark side of social media.
I also have nieces and nephews who are teenagers or in their early 20s and I watch what social media does to them and their friends.
As far as I’m concerned, my kid will never even have a phone.
I might lock her in a dungeon and never let her out!
And don’t get me started on the national days for sons and daughters and aunts and uncles and every other person in your life that allows foreign governments to use facial recognition to do whatever bad things they want to do.
Stop doing that, people!
What Facebook Knows
It turns out Facebook knows all of this is happening—there is a group of elite users who can behave any way they like and not be sanctioned.
Instagram is wholly toxic for teen girls, and while their terms of service forbid anyone younger than 13 from having an account, they actually work hard to attract pre-teens.
As much as I personally love social media, it’s become kind of a dumpster fire and even I am avoiding it in many ways.
I mean, I told a friend a few weeks ago that I would kick his butt in a bike race and they removed my comment, citing that I was inciting violence.
Will Facebook Radically Simplify?
Facebook, of course, has gone on the defensive. Zuckerberg wrote a letter to employees, which he posted on his personal page.
Nick Clegg, the vice president of global affairs at Facebook, spoke to Brian Stelter at CNN.
Both of those things bookended Haugen’s testimony.
The Wall Street Journal series I mentioned earlier was based in part on the documents Haugen gathered, as well as interviews with current and former employees.
It describes how the company’s rules favor elites; how its algorithms foster discord; and how drug cartels and human traffickers use its services openly.
Their article about the effects of Instagram on teenage girls’ mental health was the impetus for a Senate subcommittee hearing last week in which lawmakers described the disclosures as a “bombshell.”
In Haugen’s view, allowing outsiders to see the company’s research and operations is essential.
She also argues for a radical simplification of their systems and for limits on promoting content based on levels of engagement, a core feature of the recommendation systems on Facebook.
Misinformation, Toxicity, and Violence Are Necessary
The company’s own research has found that “misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent” in material reshared by users and promoted by the company’s own mechanics.
Facebook, from Zuckerberg on down, has always been clear that its goal is to create more engagement.
The algorithms optimize for likes, reshares, and comments.
As long as that is the goal, polarizing, hateful content will always be prioritized.
We certainly experienced that for the four years of Trump’s presidency and during last year’s shutdown.
We continue to experience it around the misinformation that is spread about the vaccines and people being adamant about not wearing a mask.
Honestly and truly, the only thing that can be done, in my estimation, is to stop using their social media platforms altogether.
The others have problems, too—especially TikTok, but until we the people take a stance, nothing much will change.
It’s a Tall Order to Ask Everyone to Quit Facebook
I also understand that that’s a tall order.
Many of us have long-time friends and family members in our networks that we wouldn’t otherwise hear from, except for the annual holiday letter.
I very much enjoy seeing the day-to-day lives of my people.
There also are businesses, myself included, that rely on their ads for revenue generation.
To stop using their properties entirely is not realistic.
But, until they face their own revenue challenges—and their stock price goes into the dumps—nothing much will change over there.
>Martin Waxman, Joe Thornley, and I discuss this very thing on Inside PR and they think I’m being awfully cynical about it all.
Perhaps I am, but I don’t see much changing unless there is a grassroots effort to stop using Facebook and Instagram, entirely.
As an aside, I’m on the fence about WhatsApp because it doesn’t seem as toxic.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution. And especially one that doesn’t affect us all.
People fa-reaked when it was all down for a day.
Asking everyone to leave entirely just ain’t gonna happen, is it?