Facebook is a danger to public health | The Incision | Detroit


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  • What the testimony of Frances Haugen tells us about the sequel.

Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee last Tuesday, putting into words what we all knew but couldn’t quite express: Facebook is the modern Philip Morris, the tobacco giant who knowingly and intentionally advertised and sold cigarettes to children. Indeed, heartbreaking accounts describe Facebook’s algorithm leading troubled teens into dangerous rabbit holes, promoting eating disorders and self-harm.

In simple and understandable terms, Haugen described the ways in which Facebook’s algorithm intentionally feeds people content that prioritizes “meaningful social interactions,” which is sophisticated corporate talk for the most inflammatory material, divisor and dangerous of people inside your network. She explained how Facebook targets young people – and how her own research has shown how their engagement with platforms like Instagram both is addictive and harms their mental health.

For those who were with us at The incisionSince the inception of, you will recall our very first post described how social media has brought disinformation and much of the discontent into modern society. Haugen’s testimony brought back to the public why and how Facebook should be regulated. Here’s what it will take to get there.

We need a new generation of legislators and a new agency.

One of the ongoing subplots of the effort to regulate Facebook and Big Tech is the fact that elected officials don’t have a basic understanding of Big Tech – or any technology at all.

The chairman of the subcommittee Haugen testified to asked a Facebook executive, “Will you commit to ending ‘Finsta?’ To the uninitiated, Finsta is an Internet slang term for a fake Instagram account intended only for close friends. Beyond the clumsy usage of a term seldom used by septuagenarians, it portrays a clear lack of what the problem really is. It is reminiscent of a time in 2018 when Republican Senator Orrin Hatch asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “So how do you maintain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service? Zuckerberg said unmoved, “Senator, we are running commercials.”

More generally, as the challenges facing 21st century America accelerate, Congress simply needs more people who have come of age in this century. Our political system, which tends to ossification, concentrates power in a status quo, necessarily older and more disconnected.

Having said that, they are learning. The questions posed by Democratic Senator Blumenthal and prominent member of the subcommittee, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, were thoughtful, articulate, and elicited important information from Haugen. It’s clear they’ve hired a team of experts… who actually use Instagram.

The challenges with Big Tech aren’t going anywhere. Facebook blew off the lid of Pandora’s Box. And given how ill-equipped our lawmakers are to deal with it, we need a new arm of government, similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Food and Drug Administration. The Federal Communications Commission, which apparently should have oversight power over Big Tech, was founded in 1934 to regulate radio. Needless to say, telecommunications have evolved since then. If regulation were left to the FCC, it would need massive retooling in terms of scope, size, and capacity to effectively oversee some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies.

We need to differentiate between regulating Facebook’s antisocial behavior and its monopoly practices – and resolve both.

Facebook is by far the largest social media company in the world, comprising Facebook itself, as well as Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Facebook did not create these last two companies, it simply bought them in order to stem their competition.

And these are just the competitors he bought. They attempted to copy others, like Snapchat and TikTok, out of existence. Indeed, Facebook is also working on a clone of the popular new audio social network Clubhouse.

This sparked a growing call to “break” Facebook, championed by former Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Following Haugen’s testimony, some argued that dismantling Facebook would simply limit our ability to regulate them effectively, creating several problematic social media companies out of one.

But that misses the point. We need to both regulate Facebook and break it down. One addresses the most egregious problem with Facebook’s behavior, and the other addresses the circumstances that created it. It is precisely because Facebook has used its market dominance to acquire, copy and kill its competitors that it has not been under any market pressure to change. There are so few alternatives, after all. Maybe advertisers would choose to advertise on a more user-friendly platform if others with the same reach even existed. The problem is, they don’t.

There is another side to this. When Facebook shut down for six hours on Monday, thousands of small businesses that rely on its tools did too. Facebook’s size and scale, coupled with their monopoly behavior, has left little alternative to companies that depend on social media for business. Their outage this week showed how crippling it can be.

Government regulation will not suffice. We also need a consumer-led movement.

There is a ton the federal government can do to hold Facebook accountable for its behaviors. But that won’t happen until we change the dynamics of its business model.

Again, the history of cigarette regulation is helpful here. The tobacco industry has faced regulations at almost every level of government, from limitations on where it can sell or advertise its products, requirements to put public health warnings on its packaging, and taxes that increase the price of its products. They were forced to pay millions of dollars in class action damages.

But while these regulatory and legal actions have helped reduce their power, the most lasting punch has come from consumers across the country who have quit or never resumed smoking in the first place. Smoking rates have plummeted due to public recognition that smoking is dangerous – and that Philip Morris and his counterparts are selling poison.

If we are serious about curbing the power of Facebook, it will come from all of us holding our eyes as they monetize so effectively until they commit to being better. We will have to hold advertisers responsible for choosing to advertise with Facebook and call on them to invest their advertising budget elsewhere as long as Facebook does not change. This type of consumer-led movement often precedes government action, creating an implicit authorization structure for it.

Of course, it is not as simple as with a cigarette company whose products offer no benefit, only harm and directly benefit from the consumption of their product. Thousands of businesses trust Facebook every day. And a lot of the content shared on Facebook really brings us together. But that’s exactly why this approach could be so powerful: Facebook has an alternative. Rather than being a troll cesspool that makes people feel bad about themselves and society, he can actually choose the opposite and remain extremely profitable.

It’s not that we don’t need Facebook – we just need a better Facebook. And to get there, maybe you will like and share this post?

Originally published Oct. 7 in The Incision. Get more information at incision.substack.com.

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