Mark Zuckerberg knows exactly how bad Facebook is
On March 25, Republican MP Cathy McMorris Rodgers asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether social media platforms were harming children. Zuckerberg’s first response was to avoid the question of children altogether and mumble vaguely about “people”: a simple yes or no answer. Zuckerberg replied, “I don’t think the research is conclusive on this. But I can summarize what I learned, if it can be helpful.
In his stock market gloss, Zuckerberg pointed out the good news that “Overall, the research we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive benefits for people. mental health and well-being by helping people feel more connected and less alone. ”
The words seemed to be silly and spurious back then, but they sound even worse now. From the tens of thousands of pages of internal documents provided by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, we know that Zuckerberg was willfully lying about this and many other issues concerning his business. Haugen forwarded these internal reports to The Wall Street Journal, who published them in a long series entitled Facebook files.
Facebook has long been the subject of much external criticism. Haugen’s massive cache not only validates this review, but also makes it seem overly generous. Some of the company’s research has focused on Instagram, the image-sharing site it owns. As the Newspaper noted, “Facebook has conducted studies on how its photo sharing app affects its millions of young users. Many times, [its] researchers have found that Instagram is harmful to a significant percentage of them, especially teenage girls. According to an internal Facebook slide, “32% of teenage girls said when they felt bad in their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. ”
Summarizing “Facebook files”, the Newspaper notes: “Facebook’s own research explains in detail how its rules favor elites; its platforms have negative effects on adolescent mental health; its algorithm promotes discord; and that drug cartels and human traffickers openly use its services. The newspaper adds: “The documents show that Facebook has often made minimal or ineffective efforts to resolve issues and downplay them in public. ”
The repeated pattern the documents show is that, in an attempt to allay public anger, Facebook would periodically make moves of reform, primarily by conducting internal research into the impact it was having on its users. The researchers returned with extremely negative reports and suggestions for wholesale reform. Zuckerberg and other senior executives would then reject these recommendations because they would hold back the growth of the company.
There’s no denying that Zuckerberg’s focus on growth has paid off. Facebook has grown from an idea he and some classmates developed as undergraduates at Harvard to a company valued at $ 1,000 billion, with around 3.5 billion users on Facebook and its partners. affiliated platforms (Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp). Yet the more Facebook grows, the more it must continue to grow. Speaking on 60 minutes, Haugen said: “What I saw on Facebook over and over was that there was a conflict of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook.”
One of Facebook’s smartest public relations moves was to ban Donald Trump on January 7, the day after a mob he incited attacked the Capitol. Bernie Sanders was one of the few center-left American politicians to criticize the move, on the grounds that such power could be wielded less scrupulously by tech companies in the future.
“The Facebook Files” justifies Sanders’ criticism. Long before banning Trump, Facebook gave him a special exemption. Along with other elite politicians and experts, Trump was on a “white list” of figures immune to normal enforcement rules. In May 2020, in response to protests after the murder of George Floyd, Trump tweeted and also posted on Facebook a disturbing warning that “when the looting begins, the shooting begins”. An automated system rated these inflammatory words 90 out of 100 in terms of violating platform rules. If an ordinary person had posted this, it would only take one user report for the post to be deleted. Instead, he was flagged for management review, and Zuckerberg himself stepped in to keep the post.
The lesson from “The Facebook Files” is that you can’t trust the company to self-regulate. There is no need for additional arguments to know if Facebook is having a deleterious effect: the company’s own research says so. Facebook is therefore in the same position as tobacco companies who knew smoking causes cancer, or oil companies long aware that fossil fuel consumption is the engine of climate change.
The government reorganization of Facebook is the only way forward. The urgency became all the more clear after the October 4 blackout, when the many platforms owned by the company went offline for hours. Facebook itself might just be a place to post photos for most people, but for tens of millions of people, especially in the poorest countries, WhatsApp and Messenger are as essential as the phones. Facebook is a public service run by an irresponsible oligarch.
The political question now is what form this reorganization should take. Should we impose the various domestic remedies proposed by Facebook researchers? Should Facebook, as Elizabeth Warren advocate, be divided into small businesses? Or would a more radical proposal to socialize Facebook and run it as a public service, freeing it from the imperatives of economic growth so that it only works to promote communication, be the best approach?
These divergent solutions must be politically swept aside. The only thing they have in common is that they assume that neither Zuckerberg nor any other CEO can be allowed to dictate the future of the company. Facebook has become a public problem that needs public solutions.