With a whistleblower leaking internal documents, Facebook faces new wave of backlash
Last week, Frances Haugen, a former project manager at Facebook, released documents revealing Facebook’s knowledge of how the platform is harmful to its users and the broader social and political landscape. Haugen is determined to use this information to help fix the problem.
We’ve known for years that Facebook and Instagram are platforms where hate and misinformation can spread. Visual platforms like Instagram have been increasingly linked to the promotion of harmful messages about bodies and beauty, thereby contributing to eating disorders in teenage girls and women.
However, the documents that Haugen leaked reveal how Facebook has been more than aware of its role in causing harm, on both an individual and collective scale. Profit is the number one priority for Facebook, and all of their efforts ultimately go towards retaining a platform that keeps people engaged.
Unfortunately, one of the main ways that Facebook does this is by allowing digital communities to spread misinformation and perpetrate hate, further dividing digital communities on Facebook and Instagram. The need to fight and be right is what drives the success of Facebook now. This has serious consequences for everyone involved.
We are no longer in an era where digital communities can be regarded as mere fantasy spaces. These digital communities, as Zeynep Tufecki details in her book, “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of a Networked Protest,” create imagined communities which contribute to movements and action in physical spaces. An example of this is the Jan. 6 insurrection in the United States. Facebook dissolved its civic integrity team, designed to minimize Facebook’s risk to the 2020 elections, after the presidential election. This gave terrorists greater leeway to organize the insurrection at the capitol.
Digital technologies like Facebook and Instagram can also be used as a force of good. Often, social movements that strive to fight against injustice (such as Egyptian citizens in 2011 protesting against Hosni Mubarak’s “repressive regime”) are mobilized through social media, as Tufecki explains. It allows activists to be connected to each other, often in places where it is difficult for dissident groups to take action due to media censorship and fear-based tactics. Facebook is a double-edged sword.
But in this case, Facebook has let things get out of control. Since profit is the number one priority, executives at Facebook are not really concerned with combating misinformation or content that perpetuates harmful ideologies. Such posts became Facebook’s bread and butter, sucking those who have even the best intentions down a hole filled with endless arguments that lead to no real change.
Facebook has a responsibility to fix the problems that run rampant on its platform. Although people are skeptical of social media (especially the generations that grew up with it), too many people use it as a tool to read the news, learn about health or political issues, and spread posts they believe to be true.
Some will argue that people have the right to free speech and that regulations to help combat misinformation and hateful accounts are a slippery slope. However, social media morphed into a space for productive conversations. It is a space that shows you what you want to see; a space that becomes a vacuum consisting of your beliefs. Occasionally, people can break through to those who have different opinions, as Tufecki explains, but such moments seem increasingly far and few in between. Platforms like Facebook need to be heavily revamped when it comes to their algorithms and the types of content they prioritize. Perhaps there could be an option that allows people to more directly customize their algorithms.
Facebook and Instagram have become platforms that are causing more harm than good at this point. Steps need to be taken to resolve the issues that Facebook has been aware of for years now. Digital communities on social media translate to physical spaces, and affect the lives of people across the globe. It’s time for a change.