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Social media as social poison

Whistle-blower Frances Haugen has lifted the veil on Facebook. Dislike.

Johannes Berg/Bloomberg

Every day, I go to battle. The combat is fierce and exhausting.

Billionaires and I are competing over my kid. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media giants need to hook him, and millions like him, to keep growing their obscene profits. I’m trying to keep him out of their clutches, so that he can grow into a healthier adult.

Thanks to whistle-blower Frances Haugen, it’s now clearer than ever how lopsided that fight has been. Haugen, a former manager on Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, provided internal documents to The Wall Street Journal, Congress, and others that lay out the social media giant’s moral bankruptcy.


The revelations aren’t surprising, exactly, but they’re shocking nonetheless.

Most everyone knows the hall of distorting mirrors that is Instagram makes teenage girls feel awful about themselves. Owner Mark Zuckerberg’s company knows it too, because they’ve studied it. Documents shared by the whistle-blower show Facebook’s own researchers concluded Instagram makes body issues worse for one in three teen girls, and that teens blame the photo sharing app for increases in anxiety and depression. Zuckerberg’s researchers found that 14 percent of boys said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. And that 6 percent of American teens who reported having suicidal thoughts blame the app for their desire to hurt themselves.

Zuckerberg and others knew of this research, but they publicly played down the findings, the Journal investigation showed, talking up the platform’s positive influence instead.

It’s easy to see why Haugen and others have compared Facebook to the tobacco companies who knew their products cause cancer, suppressed the science proving it, and hooked generation after generation to protect their profits. Facebook, too, must suppress what it knows about the harm its products cause and hook younger users — via Instagram — to safeguard its gargantuan revenue stream.


That’s because Zuckerberg’s original enterprise, born on a college campus, has become less popular and increasingly the domain of older people. And angrier ones. And despicable ones.

Here we get into even darker territory. Partly in an attempt to stem falling user engagement by creating healthier online communities, Facebook developed an algorithm in 2018 that would make the site more sticky, weighted to items more heavily shared and commented upon. But the change backfired: The items that got the most exposure in feeds tended to be angrier and more inflammatory. The changes flooded the platform with hatred and misinformation, far more than its content moderators could keep up with.

According to the Journal, when presented with these findings, Zuckerberg himself resisted acting on them, making it clear his priority was user engagement. The company has only recently acted to mitigate the algorithm’s damaging effects.

We’ve seen some of the other harms exacerbated by Facebook: the corrosion of our democracy, the unchecked spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, the assembling of white supremacists and other agents of chaos, the devastating lunacy surrounding COVID-19 and the lifesaving vaccinations that could have freed us all months ago.

If only that were all. Haugen’s documents reveal Facebook knew of harms that blanket the planet, courtesy of its algorithm: the fanning of ethnic violence in Myanmar and Ethiopia, the use of its products by murderous drug cartels in Mexico and human traffickers in Saudi Arabia.


It’s bad enough that Zuckerberg and others at Facebook knew of the harm their products cause and chose to protect their profits by doing little about it. More terrifying: that the monster they created is so huge and out of control, that they couldn’t undo some of the damage even if they wanted to.

These are the people who want more of our kids. They tried to appeal to my skateboard-obsessed 14-year-old during the summer Olympics with gorgeous, joyous ads about how Facebook brought together a cool community of skaters in Ghana. So far, we’ve held them off. We withheld a cellphone until eighth grade, and now that he has a phone, we closely monitor its use. And we have forbidden social media of any kind.

Lord knows how long our rules will stick. Maybe, by the time our influence wanes, they will have found a way to make Facebook, and other social media, less toxic.

I won’t hold my breath, though. It’s clearer than ever that it’s the poison that is profitable.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.