This week Facebook and its CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, demonstrated that they don’t give a damn about the toxic consequences of their popular social applications. The federal government must step up and force the company to change.
Two striking events brought the problem into focus.
Discussing Facebook on “60 Minutes” Sunday, Frances Haugen, a former data scientist for the company, said, “It erodes our civic trust, it erodes our faith in each other, and it erodes our ability to want to care for each other. . . . Facebook is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world.”
Facebook’s design amplifies divisive and provocative content, including health and political misinformation, because that generates more clicks, “likes,” and shares. Haugen’s group was disbanded immediately after the 2020 election; by January, misinformation on Facebook was helping to fuel the Capitol insurrection.
On Monday, Facebook and its sister sites Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger went down. According to the company’s engineering team, a disastrous technical error led to the deletion of key information needed to direct Internet users to the company’s services. Within Facebook, employees could not communicate — and some couldn’t even get into their buildings to fix the problem — because the company unwisely built its internal systems on its own technology. As Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain tweeted, “Facebook basically locked its keys in the car.”
These events demonstrate the monumental hubris of Facebook and Zuckerberg. The company’s faith in its own infallibility is arrogant, foolhardy, and dangerous. These are only the latest in a long line of toxic effects from Facebook:
▪ It unapologetically amplifies divisions in American politics by showing extreme content based on users’ political biases. It ignored an internal report in which Facebook scientists warned, “If left unchecked,” Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention.”
▪ Facebook is a haven for foreign agents attempting to influence American political views. MIT’s Technology Review reported that, in October 2019, the top 15 pages targeting US Christians and 10 of the top 15 pages targeting Black people were run by Eastern European troll farms.
▪ Facebook and other social media have hollowed out American journalism. According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of American adults get their news from Facebook. As Facebook displaces news organizations as the gatekeeper for America’s news, journalism jobs have disappeared, and the most divisive content hogs the attention.
▪ Facebook knew its Instagram subsidiary was worsening teenage girls’ issues with anorexia, depression, and body image but ignored the problem.
▪ Facebook is a haven for the rapid spread of COVID vaccine denial and misinformation, which contributes to the death of unvaccinated Americans.
Remember, Zuckerberg has been working on Facebook since he was 18. The newsfeed is his baby. All these problems are just sand in the gears of his sacred algorithm. The weak feints and lame apologies fail to hide that the toxicity is spreading. In response to Haugen, a Facebook spokesperson said, “If any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments, and society would have solved them a long time ago.” In other words, “We give up, not our problem.”
From opposite ends of the political spectrum, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri have called for the the hammer to be brought down. Here’s how to do it:
First, break Facebook up: Spin off Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus VR into separate companies to reduce the massive aggregation of consumer data.
Second, require transparent documentation of the evolving Facebook and Instagram algorithms, so researchers can examine them for bias and toxic effects.
Third, reopen Facebook’s aggregated data to researchers. (In August, Facebook cut off data to researchers, probably in an attempt to avoid scrutiny of its biases.)
Fourth, implement a fairness doctrine to require that Facebook show members content from opposing points of view.
Fifth, investigate Facebook for allegedly lying to and withholding material financial information from investors, such as the material revealed by Frances Haugen.
Finally, mandate a five-fold increase in spending on content moderation, to improve the pathetically low percentage of hate speech, pernicious misinformation, and catfishing that the company actually catches. A five-fold increase might put a serious dent in the flood of questionable content that slips through.
Facebook is on track to generate about $40 billion a year in profits. It can afford to make all these fixes. But unless we and our government force these changes, Zuckerberg’s baby will continue to spread its toxic influence throughout America.
Josh Bernoff is author or coauthor of six books on technology, media, and business.