Leaks just exposed just how toxic Facebook and Instagram are to teenage girls and, well, everyone | Siva Vaidhyanathan
FFor years, Facebook has faced torrents of criticism from human rights groups and academic researchers, who have sounded the alarm bells about the ways in which the most ubiquitous digital social platform of human history distorts our world and promotes destructive behaviors ranging from eating disorders to genocide. In response, Mark Zuckerberg and his team have frequently committed to reform.
While many of those promises and predictions seemed to have been true, it turns out that not only the architecture and incentives built into Facebook itself have undermined the bigger efforts to fix the service, but the staff of Facebook research informed senior management of the company of the astonishing failures.
This week, the Wall Street Journal published a series of revealing articles, based on internal studies and documents leaked by Facebook researchers, revealing how duplicitous and / or naive Zuckerberg is about his own business and its influence on the world.
In an article, the Journal revealed that Facebook maintains a private registry of very important people, including celebrities and politicians, who are exempt from the strict content posting rules that govern the rest of us.
A second article was even more powerful in its indictment of Facebook and its executives. The Journal showed that Facebook’s own researchers documented the psychological dangers that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, poses to teenagers, especially teenage girls.
Here’s how Facebook’s internal documents and presentations put it: “We [Instagram] make body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls, ”and“ Teens blame Instagram for rising rates of anxiety and depression. This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups. Internal studies have shown that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of UK users and 6% of US users attributed their desire to kill themselves to Instagram.
So Facebook executives knew their service was hurting people, but refused to publicly acknowledge it or do much about it. It is clear that adolescent health is not about those who run this business. In March, Zuckerberg told a congressional hearing: “The research we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive effects on mental health. He did not offer such research. And he probably knew that the truth was quite the opposite.
In the latest revelation, the Journal reported that after Zuckerberg promised to promote legitimate information about Covid-19 and vaccinations, Facebook users who oppose vaccines or doubt the threat of Covid-19 have done so. what Facebook users have been doing for years: They flooded the comments. under otherwise factual publications containing misleading, misleading and destructive health information. The result was cacophony at best, successful propaganda at worst. The swarm of anti-vaccine commentators, who are more motivated than most of us who trust medical science, have undermined the pro-vaccination goal Zuckerberg set for himself.
Facebook researchers who cautioned against the problem understood what the company’s top management seems to ignore or deny: The problem with Facebook is Facebook. Facebook is designed to drive engagement and reward engagement. Comments are his motto.
Posts that generate a lot of comments are promoted by algorithms, but those comments themselves are part of the overall message of the post. Arguments break out. And the more people bicker in the comments, the more important the post and comments become. That’s why you can’t chat with evil, ignorance, or madness on Facebook – it’s counterproductive. Unfortunately, posting reasonable and solid information is also, in a sense, counterproductive: this kind of information hardly gets any readers because reasonable posts don’t generate irrational or unfounded responses – or they attract destructive or toxic responses. , and those comments turn the post into Facebook picks it up and sends it to users’ news feeds.
Comments matter. In addition to shares and likes, comments generate “engagement” with posts and profiles. Everything about Facebook is designed to maximize engagement – even more than revenue. If the company can get its 3 billion users to interact with the content for as long and as often as possible, then the revenue will be sufficient on its own. As sociologist Jeremy Littau has argued, we need a better empirical analysis of the effects of Facebook comments on the overall communicative influence of Facebook. We’re just beginning to understand the power of feedback on Facebook’s algorithmic amplification system and on users.
Comments in posts that only indirectly relate to Covid-19 or vaccines can also have a profound influence. A post in a Facebook group dedicated to parents or schools could, for example, generate anti-vaccine comments that garner significant attention and engagement. An article on professional American football, where vaccination policies have elicited negative reactions from players and fans, could become a hotbed of anti-vaccine propaganda. But most researchers and Facebook’s own content moderation systems don’t seem very concerned with comments. Even a quick glance at a Facebook page should convince us to pay attention to comments.
Many critics of big tech companies cheered as their disgruntled workforces rose to challenge the rich, (mostly) white (mostly) American men who design and manage Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Oracle. , Palantir and others. The workers’ uprisings forced the bosses to confront their mistreatment of women, their complicity with the military and intelligence services, the general threat of surveillance and the political affiliations of companies and their leaders.
This week, we saw the first of what will likely be a flood of internal documents and studies revealing to the public just how bad things are in the tech industry.
For years, the myth that these companies made the world “better” has served as a kind of non-cash wage for workers. They could sleep well and smile in the mirror believing that their services and devices improved the human condition.
While many of us saw through this nonsense years ago, tech workers took a little longer. But now they are clearly ready to revolt, out of sheer disgust. Working for Facebook these days must be an overwhelming moral and social experience.
That said, the latest revelations show once again that there isn’t much hope of reforming the platform by changing its culture or design. A world with Facebook is going to be crueler, dumber, and deadlier than a world without Facebook. But it looks like we’re stuck with it.