Frances Haugen was a product manager with Facebook for two years before becoming disillusioned with the social media giant. On the way out, she combed through the company’s internal social network and left with a multitude of explosive documents. In doing so, she may finally have gave Congress a roadmap to end Facebook’s utter lack of accountability.
The documents with which Haugen fled became the basis of The Wall Street Journal “Facebook Files” series, which details how the company has long known about the damage its platforms can cause to people and our social fabric. After weeks of secrecy, Haugen revealed herself as the Facebook whistleblower Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes”. On Tuesday, she testified before a Senate hearing – and gave me more hope than ever that our lawmakers might be ready to regulate social media.
The most important message she sent to the committee can be summed up as follows: forget the content; focus on algorithms.
Much of what Haugen told the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on consumer protection has already been detailed in the media. She confirmed that Instagram, that Facebook acquired in 2012, was well aware that her platform was “toxic to many teenage girls.” She has repeatedly noted that Facebook is devoting minimal resources in response to using its platform to incite ethnic violence in Ethiopia and other developing countries.
But the most important message she gave the subcommittee can be summed up as follows: Forget the content; focus on algorithms.
For too long, the question of what to do about Facebook has been presented as a choice between limiting free speech or letting violent rhetoric run unchecked. Instead, Haugen argues, the answer lies in stopping Facebook’s practice of letting computers decide what people want to see.
As it stands, Facebook’s core algorithm uses “engagement-based ranking“to help you determine what is showing up in your news feed. In other words, if you like, comment on, or share content, artificial intelligence programs detect what makes that content special and find things that you want. ‘he thinks similar to show you.
In 2018, the company changed the news feed algorithm to focus on what it called “meaningful social interaction”: by minimizing news articles and increasing the number of posts from friends, of family members and like-minded users at the top of newsfeeds. The idea was to calm things down after the tumult of the 2016 election. The result, as BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti noted in an email to Facebook, was that Facebook became a clearly angrier place, where the worst content climbed to the top and was shared more aggressively:
The company’s researchers found that publishers and political parties were redirecting their publications towards outrage and sensationalism. This tactic produced high levels of comments and reactions which resulted in success on Facebook.
“Our approach has had unhealthy side effects on large slices of public content, such as politics and news,” wrote a team of data scientists, pointing to Mr Peretti’s complaints, in a note reviewed by the Newspaper. “This is a growing responsibility,” wrote one in a subsequent note.
The goal of the current formula is to get people to stay on the site longer by showing users content that Facebook already knows they’re going to engage with, whether it’s a friend or a friend. ‘a former classmate or influencer with tens of thousands of followers. “It’s not even for you. It’s so that you give your friends small doses of dopamine to create more content, ”Haugen told the committee.
Facebook co-founder, CEO and chairman Mark Zuckerberg is aware of all of these factors. And as the owner of nearly 58% of Facebook’s voting shares, he is particularly well placed to promote changes in the system he has built. Instead, Haugen argued, the company has focused on short-term metrics and growth rather than the overall sequelae of its actions.
Unlike many advocates, however, she doesn’t think Facebook should be taken down. It would just leave his algorithm responsible for what people see and less money to spend on fixing the problems he faces. She also disagrees with the Conservatives who would deprive Facebook of its liability shield under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
When asked what she would recommend, Haugen suggested amending Section 230 to hold Facebook accountable for its algorithm and any hateful or deceptive speech to its users. As part of an expanded oversight capacity, she suggested specific research that Congress might require of the company. Haugen also offered senators a regulatory body that could rule on Facebook’s actions and called on the company to make its internal data public by default. for academics and independent scholars to review.
Surprisingly, senators seemed not only receptive to his suggestions, but also much more engaged on the matter than usual. They asked pointed questions about algorithmic tweaks and how Facebook executives made those decisions. When Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, attempted to switch to political censorship, he found himself disarmed by Haugen’s responses. “A lot of the things I am advocating are changing the amplification mechanisms, not picking winners and losers in the ideas market,” she said. Cruz seemed genuinely interested when asked to explain what this meant and how to get more transparency from Facebook.
This sudden wisdom from Congress couldn’t come at a worse time for Facebook.
This sudden wisdom from Congress couldn’t come at a worse time for Facebook. Kevin Roose of the New York Times argues that Haugen’s treasury exposed the actions of “a company fearing to lose power and influence, not to gain it, with its own research showing that many of its products do not thrive organically.” If the legislation targets its “increasingly extreme lengths” to “prevent users from abandoning its applications in favor of more convincing alternatives”, this could only multiply Facebook’s problems.
There can be no assurance that Tuesday’s hearing will be the catalyst for new laws and regulations. And as Monday’s blackout showed, Facebook is still an integral part of the Internet’s infrastructure. But thanks to Haugen and the documents she released, Congress is finally asking the right questions about how to harness the power Facebook has accumulated.