If you’re finding it hard to stay away from Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, don’t worry — you are not alone. Half of the people on this planet, some 3.5 billion people, are regular users of the three platforms. Indeed, many are addicted to Facebook and Instagram — and the people who run the platforms want to keep it that way.
That addition, ego-led and algorithm-fed, explains why, when the three sites went down for six hours or so last Monday, many of the 3.5 billion began to experience withdrawal symptoms. The outage also withdrew 5 per cent in value in the parent company’s stock and reduced founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth by some $6 billion in the process.
Whatever the technical issues responsible for the ‘faulty configuration change’ that brought the sites down — I guess they couldn’t just turn it off and reboot like the technical support desk usually advises — Zuckerberg’s empire is facing an existential crisis caused by Frances Haugen, a whistle-blower who has detailed to US congressional lawmakers just how deliberately pervasive and manipulative the platforms are.
Documents and testimony provided by Haugen reveal that Facebook executives had been aware of negative impacts of its platforms on some young users, among other findings. For example, one internal document found that of teens reporting suicidal thoughts, 6 per cent of American users traced the urge to kill themselves to Instagram.
If you have friends or children who seem to spend countless hours taking pout- and trout-lipped selfies, worrying about what BFFs think — or worse still, OMG, don’t — then you know exactly what Haugen was referring to.
The 37-year-old is former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, according to her website, and has revealed herself as the source behind a trove of leaked documents shared initially with The Wall Street Journal and then with a prime-time news show. On her personal website, she shared that during her time at the company, she “became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritising their own profits over public safety — putting people’s lives at risk. As a last resort and at great personal risk, Frances made the courageous act to blow the whistle on Facebook.”
Her LinkedIn profile — isn’t it great just how much information people are willing to put out there? — says after studying electrical and computer engineering, followed by an MBA, she worked as a product manager at Pinterest, Yelp and Google. It also lists herself as the technical co-founder behind the dating app Hinge, saying she took its precursor, Secret Agent Cupid, to market.
“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” Haugen said. She left Facebook in May.
For its part, Facebook dismisses Haugen’s claims, saying the documents represent cherry-picked data and that even headlines on its own internal presentations ignored potentially positive interpretations that suggested many users found positive impacts from engagement with their products.
“Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place,” Facebook said. “We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Haugen’s testimony and the documents she accessed point to a culture of neglect at Facebook where senior employees ignored the site’s harmful impact on teens, reacting weakly to sex traffickers using the site and manipulating everyday users who believe they’re scrolling and reacting of their own free will.
“Facebook knows that content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, a comment or a reshare,” Haugen testified, adding the company is well aware that it’s “leading young users to anorexia content.”
And there lies the kernel of the issue: Facebook is manipulating its users into accepting a reality of its choosing — one that maximises profit at the expense of users’ personal sanity.
“They know that other people will produce more content if they get the likes, comments and reshares,” Haugen testified. “They prioritise [your friends’] content in your feed so that you will give little hits of dopamine to your friends, so they will create more content.”
Facebook’s ability to influence users by filling their timelines with targeted content has been discussed for years — her testimony has confirmed what most of us suspected already.
Haugen pointed to the 2020 election as a turning point at Facebook. She said Facebook had announced it was dissolving the “Civic Integrity” team, to which she was assigned, after the election. Just a few months later, social media communications would be a key focus in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
She specialises in “algorithmic product management,” and had worked on several ranking algorithms similar to the one Facebook uses to organise its main newsfeed.
She said Facebook recognised the risk of misinformation to the 2020 election and therefore added safety systems to reduce that risk. But, she said, Facebook loosened those safety measures once again after the election.
“As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off or they changed the settings back to what they were before, to prioritise growth over safety,” Haugen said. “And that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me.”
Democracy? There is little that can unite lawmakers in Washington now, but Haugen’s testimony did, with senators from both sides of the aisle pummeling the company.
But is any of this really surprising? Hardly. Haugen seems to reinforce what most of us already knew or suspected: you don’t get to connect half of the world’s population by accident — but you do by algorithm.
Maybe it is time for all of us to shut down and reboot.