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It has not been a good month for Facebook. A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal began publishing a damning investigative series, “The Facebook Files,” based on leaked internal documents revealing that the tech giant knows its platforms are causing great social harm — often in ways only the company fully understands — but has done little to alleviate it for fear of losing profits.
“The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world,” Frances Haugen, the whistle-blower who provided the documents at the heart of The Journal’s investigation, told CBS. “Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money.”
But before that scandal could be fully metabolized, The Great Facebook Blackout happened: Facebook and its family of apps — Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp — suffered an unusually debilitating global outage on Monday, depriving 3.5 billion people of an important — or in many countries, the only — means of digital communication.
As the blackout made clear, our world is very much dependent on Facebook. But would we be better off without it? Here’s what people are saying.
Inside ‘The Facebook Files’
Here are just a few forms of malfeasance the Journal investigation revealed:
Throughout the pandemic, anti-vaccine activists have used the platform to hobble the U.S. vaccination effort, despite a promise from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to make promoting Covid-19 vaccines a top priority: “Even when he set a goal, the chief executive couldn’t steer the platform as he wanted.”
Researchers inside Instagram found that the platform harms the mental health of its users — more so than other social-media platforms — making body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.
Employees flagged that Facebook was being used to facilitate all manner of pernicious activity in developing countries, where its user base is expanding, including human trafficking, drug cartel recruitment, incitement of violence against ethnic minorities, organ selling and government suppression of political dissent. A former Facebook vice president described the company’s attitude toward these ills as “simply the cost of doing business.”
“Time and again, the documents show, Facebook’s researchers have identified the platform’s ill effects,” The Journal found. “Time and again, despite congressional hearings, its own pledges and numerous media exposés, the company didn’t fix them.”
The case for shutting it all down
Facebook, for its part, responded to The Journal’s investigation by claiming it contained mischaracterizations and promising to “continue to improve our products and services.”
In an essay last year, my former colleague Charlie Warzel argued that such promises only work to obscure the platform’s fundamental incapacity for reform. “The architecture of the social network — its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content — will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale,” he wrote.
“You see lots of people putting forth a hopeful idea of a new, humane social media platform to rescue us — one that respects privacy or is less algorithmically coercive,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, told Warzel. “But if we’re being honest, what they’re really proposing at that point is not really social media anymore.”
Indeed, in 2019, Annalee Newitz argued in The Times that the time had come for social media to be replaced by some other medium of communication, much the same way that television was replaced by the internet. “We need to stop handing off responsibility for maintaining public space to corporations and algorithms — and give it back to human beings,” she wrote. “We may need to slow down, but we’ve created democracies out of chaos before. We can do it again.”
In defense of Facebook
As “The Facebook Files” were being published, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, spoke on a podcast to defend the company, claiming its good works outweighed its sins: “Cars create way more value in the world than they destroyed,” he said. “And I think social media is similar.”
It’s not just people whose salaries depend on believing this argument who believe it. Haugen, the whistle-blower, suggests that Facebook can still play a positive role in the world: “I don’t hate Facebook,” she wrote of her motives for leaking. “I love Facebook. I want to save it.”
And true enough, Facebook does serve some socially useful functions:
Through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the company provides ways to communicate with people across age, life experience and nationality, which is especially useful for diasporic populations trying to stay connected, as Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, told Vox.
Like Twitter, Facebook facilitates “the exchange of information that is vital to the coordination of protest activities, such as news about transportation, turnout, police presence, violence, medical services and legal support,” as a 2018 academic article summarized.
Social media sites can have a positive effect on the well-being of marginalized youth: In a survey of L.G.B.T.Q. people aged 14 to 29 published this year, 11.1 percent of those who chose Facebook as one of their favorite social media sites indicated that they used it because it helped them feel loved.
Can Facebook be saved from itself?
When Warzel made his case for Facebook’s abolition, he also sought out some of the countless ideas that have been proposed for its reform:
Some are administrative, like increasing content moderation enforcement, which can be grueling, even traumatic work. In the United States there is roughly one law enforcement officer for every 500 people. Facebook, by contrast, has just 1.3 people working in safety and security for every 100,000 users. “Enforcing the rules can be done; it just costs money,” Gilead Edelman wrote in Wired last year.
The Times’s Kevin Roose says the most recent revelations show “a company worried that it is losing power and influence, not gaining it, with its own research showing that many of its products aren’t thriving organically.”
What might a better organizing principle for Facebook’s business model be, if not engagement at all costs? Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John’s University Law School, argues it should be “user experience,” which might entail measuring the good things Facebook offers, not just the bad — how likely a user is to attend a protest, for example, or to give to a charitable cause.
The hope for the possibility of a better Facebook was palpable on Tuesday when Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee about her findings. “Facebook wants you to believe that the problems we’re talking about are unsolvable,” she said. “I am here today to tell you that’s not true. These problems are solvable. A safer, free-speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible.”
Are you done with Facebook, or do you still think the platform’s pros outweigh its cons? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“The Endless Facebook Apology” [The New York Times]
“Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine” [The Atlantic]
“In Defense of Facebook” [The Boston Globe]