It’s been a horrible, no-good, very bad week for Facebook — and to hear some newly enlightened members of Congress tell it, every agonizing minute for the social media giant was well deserved. Now politicians should seize this moment to scrutinize their own social media practices and make sure they’re not unwittingly contributing to the company’s dominance.
The outage was sandwiched between Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s revelations on “60 Minutes” Sunday night and a Tuesday appearance on Capitol Hill in which she testified, “I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” she told the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety, and data security.
Officials are right to drill down on Facebook, which reported record revenue last quarter of nearly $30 billion. But lawmakers at every level of government can also lead by example, by making sure that using a Facebook service — or those of any other Silicon Valley company — is never the only way to participate in public life.
Right now, some public officials use Facebook as their vehicle of choice — and sometimes only option amid a pandemic — for communicating with the public and with their own constituents.
The many sins of Facebook have been an open secret for a long time now — from revelations about Russian election interference to the scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of Facebook profiles, to algorithms that steer users to inflammatory and often false content. But at the core of its being — and so often overlooked by those enamored of its warm fuzzy ads touting its ability to bring people together — Facebook is about making money off the data it uses to target ads, something that officials unwittingly help them do every time they stream an event on Facebook Live and oblige citizens to expose themselves to the company’s data dragnet and divisive clickbait.
The pandemic has provided something of a boom for Facebook, not simply from those using the platform to keep in touch remotely with friends during lockdowns but also from its continuing use by public entities and officials who use it as a substitute for in-person public meetings, like those required under Massachusetts’ public meeting laws.
This Tuesday, for example — even as Haugen was detailing Facebook’s “moral bankruptcy” — the chair of at least one Massachusetts legislative committee was using his Facebook page to livestream a public hearing.
Asked why Senator Eric Lesser, cochair of the Committee on Economic Development, Energy, and Technology, opted to host the livestream of the committee’s hearing on his Facebook page, his spokesperson responded, “Legislative Information Services (the IT department for both House and Senate) does not have the capacity to stream more than one hearing at once.
“We don’t choose to use Facebook; we have to for capacity reasons,” she added.
Representative Tackey Chan also often uses his Facebook page to livestream meetings of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.
Videos of all of those hearings are eventually posted to the Legislature’s own website at the end of the day, but for those wanting to watch in real time there is no alternative.
House sources disputed the need to use Facebook, insisting the Legislature has the capacity to livestream concurrent hearings, in addition to informal and formal sessions of the House and Senate, and that Legislative Information Services works with committee chairs to accommodate virtual hearings.
The legislative calendar for Sept. 15, for example, lists three hearings at 10 a.m., all accommodated on the state’s own livestreaming service.
And since the House Reopening Working Group has recommended continuing virtual meetings even after the State House reopens to the public in order to cut down on overcrowding, getting committee chairs to take a vow to always make non-Facebook options available ahead of time is crucial.
The reason elected officials would want to use Facebook is obvious: It’s easy. And their captive audience gets to view not just the hearing but all the other wondrous things the politicians have done lately (in addition to whatever Facebook wants to sell).
It’s one thing for a candidate or public official to use Facebook. It’s something else when they effectively make residents who are interested in a particular issue use it too. Public is public, and no one who wants to virtually attend a public meeting — a technological advance that shouldn’t go away with the end of this pandemic — should have to subject themselves to Facebook’s profiteering and manipulative algorithms. Certainly not when there are alternatives.
Time and again, Facebook has abused its stewardship of its corner of the public square. Smart politicians should not be complicit in that abuse.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.