Facebook in Court
October 11, 2021
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by Stephen Kanyi

It’s been a week to forget for Mark Zuckerberg. In addition to the outages across Facebook websites, the company has been facing a legal battle in Senate with former Facebook executive turned whistleblower Frances Haugen. The ex-Facebook executive has criticized her former employers for allegedly putting “astronomical profits over people.”

Testifying in Congress for the better part of last week, Ms Haugen pulled no punches, likening social media platform Instagram to cigarettes.

“It’s just like cigarettes … teenagers don’t have good self-regulation.”

Her statement led to Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut drawing comparisons between the current case against Facebook to the “big tobacco” of the early 90s.

Haugens criticism was first featured in a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal that detailed how the social media giant put its users at risk for profit.

At the heart of her criticisms is the complaint that Facebook encourages users to spend way more time on their platform than is healthy for them. Also, for young girls,’ platforms like Instagram are reported to be psychologically harmful by making them ‘anxious about their body image.’ Facebook’s changes to its algorithmic feed have been blamed for boosting user engagement while at the same time increasing discontent and hostility.

The company has also been criticized for spreading misinformation with events like Capitol riots and election manipulation in the Cambridge Analytica being presented as examples.

In her statements, Haugen made it clear that she thought that the company continuously chose to prioritize dangerous content to keep users engaged for longer. As many social media users might agree, controversial statements tend to get the most engagement in terms of replies and shares. This is perhaps one of the biggest criticisms facing these platforms today. Their structure seems to promote discontent and this could lead to dark places.

The Haugen hearing however centred more around the effects these platforms had on young kids. While sharing internal Facebook internal reports she argued that the platform’s algorithms are geared to make these platforms addictive to teens. In the testimony, she reiterated the WSJ report that claimed that the social media giant ‘failed to act on internal research showing that its Instagram app was damaging teenagers’ mental health.’

 Facebook’s recommendation-based algorithm, which is the subject of this attack, is criticized for keeping the users engaged for longer and at the same time generating content deemed to be psychologically harmful to young teens. Indeed, Facebook and Instagram have already been documented to cause increased anxiety and in severe cases depression among young girls who struggle with self-esteem.

Mark Zuckerberg has however been quick to refute Frances Haugen testimony and claims of putting profits over people as “just not true.”

In a blogpost directed to Facebook staff, the tech mogul addressed these claims saying:

“At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and wellbeing. That’s just not true.

“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content.”

He claimed that many of the claims didn’t make any sense, stating that the company had already put in place measures that clearly showed it cared more than just profits.

“If we didn’t care about fighting harmful content, then why would we employ so many more people dedicated to this than any other company in our space – even ones larger than us? If we wanted to hide our results, why would we have established an industry-leading standard for transparency and reporting on what we’re doing?”

About the News Feed Algorithm, he said that the change Facebook implemented in 2018 was meant to increase users’ wellbeing.

“This change showed fewer viral videos and more content from friends and family – which we did know it would mean people spent less time on Facebook, but that research suggested it was the right thing for people’s wellbeing. Is that something a company focused on profits over people would do?”

Despite this defence, Congress has been adamant in criticizing Facebook and social media networks at large for harming their users. For critics, the hope is that this case would be key in enacting ‘sweeping reforms aimed at checking the power these companies wielded.’

Asked whether Haugen’s testimony would be enough to pressure Congress to pass new laws, California Democrat Adam Schiff answered with an emphatic ‘Yes!’

“If you bet against Congress, you win 90% of the time.”

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