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Without a doubt, Facebook has had a bad week, following a bad month, in what has seemingly been a bad half-decade.
In September, the Wall Street Journal revealed documents showing the company knew its products were harmful and chose not to deal with it. On Sunday, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, came forward as a whistleblower, saying the company “chooses profits over safety.” Two days later, she went to Congress, renewing calls for legislation to crack down on the company. Meanwhile, a major service outage plagued the company, and its court fight with the Biden administration — which is trying to break the company up — continued.
It amounts to some of the heaviest scrutiny yet for a company that swelled from a Harvard dorm room creation into a social media colossus, with 2.9 billion users and the revenue to rival a midsized country. In and around Boston — home to a thriving tech ecosystem, social media experts, and Haugen’s own college professors — experts weighed in on the moment, with some hopeful that this is a turning point, and others levying skepticism that much will change.
“Facebook isn’t going to fix itself,” Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University Massachusetts Amherst, said in an interview. “And it’s hard to imagine really meaningful congressional action.”
Zuckerman added that instead of waiting for Congress to pass legislation against the company, federal regulators should audit Facebook’s algorithms, and external researchers should be given access to Facebook data to study the harms its products cause. “What we need to be doing is leveling the playing field,” he said. “We actually need to invest in our public spaces . . . rather than outsourcing the digital public sphere to a for-profit company that, frankly, has a dreadful track record of how it’s managed that space.”
Despite his skepticism, he said that in some ways, this moment of scrutiny is different. “The presence of a whistleblower causes us to pay attention to something,” he said. “It means that somebody had the sense that there was no way that existing oversight forces were going to lead to meaningful change.”
Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and a leading expert on disinformation, agreed, saying it was “important” that Haugen leaked thousands of documents to the press and testified in front of the Senate, bringing congressional attention to the issue.
But she worried about parts of the whistleblower’s testimony, such as when Haugen advocated against the government using antitrust action to break up Facebook’s businesses, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, into separate entities — thereby reducing its dominance in the market.
“I was taken aback by the idea that she thinks antitrust should be off the table,” Donovan said. “I think there’s a lot to be untangled.”
Donovan added that some other suggestions Haugen made troubled her. Most notably, one in which she asked lawmakers to create a regulatory agency, staffed in part by former employees to oversee Facebook. “That’s like putting former Exxon employees in charge of the EPA,” she said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency. “The solutions that she’s offering are woefully inadequate and do not serve the purpose of fixing what damage Facebook has caused.”
Haugen, for her part, said a regulatory agency that could request data from Facebook, including about how its algorithms work and what content they end up amplifying on its platforms, is a necessary first step.
“As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one,” she said in her testimony. “A critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency: full access to data for research not directed by Facebook.”
Meanwhile, Michael Cusumano, the deputy dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said “government pressure” will be necessary to regulate Facebook, noting that the social media giant will use its financial resources to beat back challenges to its business. “We’re looking at years and years of litigation,” he said.
Eric Paley, managing partner of Cambridge-based venture capital firm Founder Collective, said that scrutiny of Facebook “to let short-term economics undermine the long-term mission” of keeping people connected and fueling social activism is a lesson for new entrepreneurs.
“This ethical conundrum is a temptation that every startup needs to wrestle with as it grows,” he said in a statement. “Companies stand a better chance if they align the business model with a moral foundation from day one and keep their eyes on that long-term mission as they grow.”
Robert Martello, an Olin College professor, reflected on teaching Haugen over a decade ago in his history of technology class. He said “she stood out” for her passion and enthusiasm. “She loved digging into issues in a complicated way,” he said. “Getting the full picture, . . . appreciating all the angles.” (Haugen has an undergraduate degree from Olin College, and an MBA from Harvard University.)
Martello said that Haugen’s actions speak volumes about the role ethics should play in training computer engineers of the future — a core tenet of Olin’s curriculum. He said engineers cannot simply focus on creating products anymore; they must weigh the ethical implications of what they create.
“Engineering is better when we bring the [ethical] context into it,” Martello said. “The ethics is better when it’s being informed by someone who actually rolled up their sleeves and looked at the technical aspects of the challenge.”