What can overcome the hand-to-hand combat typical of Washington these days? Or, the danger to children and to a civil society that is Facebook and Instagram?
Last week, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen had U.S. senators from across the political spectrum asking probing questions and treating her answers seriously. The rarity of this tone lent credence to comparisons of the moment for the social-media behemoth to that of the reckoning faced by tobacco companies in 1996.
Facebook immediately pointed out that Haugen didn’t work for the company for long and had no executive access. Nonetheless, she watched the company retreat from its efforts to inhibit disinformation. She testified that the company’s compensation structure rewarded growth and profits rather than user safety and civil democracy. She copied internal documents and took them public.
She said that Facebook knows that its platforms can be addictive, especially for young Instagram users. It knows that angry violence-tinged language keeps users on its platform longer. It knows that more screen time means more advertisers.
Facebook executives, including founder Mark Zuckerberg, who controls 55% of the stock, know that how Facebook and Instagram feed information to users is doing quantifiable damage.
Haugen said she didn’t think the company set out to do evil, but faced with the data it collects, Facebook chooses not to increase human oversight of its content, not to aggressively remove disinformation, and not to protect children.
Whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and a stack of documents finally overcame tobacco company lobbying and prodded Congress into imposing safety regulations. Haugen said she hopes her efforts might be Facebook’s “big tobacco moment.”
With Facebook’s 2.89 billion users worldwide, over one billion users of Instagram and operating profits of $32.6 billion, breaking up the company, as the government did to AT&T decades ago, seems justifiable.
There are better solutions.
Facebook should be forced to open its research findings to regulators and the public. It should be required to properly staff and support human oversight to block nefarious uses of its platforms, including the spread of disinformation. It should ban targeted ads. It should be forced to stop targeting children.
Haugen gave the public a glimpse into a sci-fi world where minds are controlled by mathematical formulas, parents are left with no way to guide their children and one company has total immunity.
It’s up to Congress to make sure that glimpse doesn’t persist as a permanent reality.
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