Why Facebook and I Are Done (UPDATED)

UPDATE: Facebook is now being sued by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC, along with more than 40 states, is accusing Facebook of establishing an illegal monopoly by buying up rival companies and hindering those it cannot acquire. According to NBC News, the suit filed today asks a federal court to force sell-off of companies like Instagram and WhatsApp.

“Facebook has maintained its monopoly position by buying up companies that present competitive threats and by imposing restrictive policies that unjustifiably hinder actual or potential rivals that Facebook does not or cannot acquire,” the commission said in the lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C. The lawsuit asks the court to order the “divestiture of assets, divestiture or reconstruction of businesses (including, but not limited to, Instagram and/or WhatsApp),” as well as other possible relief the court may choose to add.

“For nearly a decade, Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users,” said Attorney General Letitia James of New York. She also alleges that the company has been surveilling users and profiting from it.

UPDATE (Oct. 4, 2021): Facebook is currently down. The social media giant has been experiencing outages today, along with affiliated websites Instagram and WhatsApp. This technical snafu comes just a day after a damning report on CBS’s “60 Minutes” about the company’s algorithm and its approach to misinformation.

Last month, an anonymous former employee filed complaints with federal law enforcement. The complaints say Facebook’s own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest—but the company hides what it knows. Last night, on “60 Minutes”, the whistleblower revealed herself.

Her name is Frances Haugen.

According to CBS News, “Frances Haugen is 37, a data scientist from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a Harvard master’s degree in business. For 15 years she’s worked for companies including Google and Pinterest.” Haugen says she was recruited by Facebook in 2019. She says she agreed to take the job only if she could work against misinformation because she had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.

At Facebook headquarters, she was assigned to “Civic Integrity”, which worked on risks to elections including misinformation. But after the 2020 election, there was a turning point. Haugen tells CBS News reporter Scott Pelley:

They told us, “We’re dissolving Civic Integrity.” Like, they basically said, “Oh good, we made it through the election. There wasn’t riots. We can get rid of Civic Integrity now.” Fast forward a couple months, we got the insurrection. And when they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I was like, “I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”

– Frances Haugen, on last night’s “60 Minutes”

Ahead of the 2020 election, Facebook turned on certain safety controls. But after the election, those controls were turned off, or else reverted to normal settings. Just weeks later, some used Facebook to organize the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen said on 60 Minutes, “and Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

And the effects spread beyond just Facebook. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is also subject to negative side effects from its content. The results are unsettling. 13.5% of teen girls say Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse; 17% of teen girls say Instagram makes eating disorders worse, Pelley reported last night.

Unable to correct the problems internally, Haugen left her job in May. Then she secretly copied tens of thousands of pages of Facebook internal research. She says evidence shows that the company’s lying to the public about making significant progress against hate violence and misinformation. One study she found from this year says “we estimate that we action as little as 3.5 percent of hate and [about] 0.6% of violence and incitement on Facebook, despite being the best in the world at it.”

Haugen said the root of the problem lies in Facebook’s algorithm, the programming that controls what a user sees on his/her “News Feed”. There are thousands of options for content that Facebook can show you, Haugen explained. But the algorithm picks from those options based on the kind of content you’ve engaged with the most in the past. 

“And one of the consequences of how Facebook is picking out that content today is it is — optimizing for content that gets engagement, or reaction. But its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing, it’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions,” she told Pelley. When he posited that misinformation and “angry content” would entice people and keep them on the platform, Haugen answered: “Yes. 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.”

Haugen says that this has widespread and pernicious implications: “When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, divisive, and polarizing content, it erodes our civic trust. It erodes our faith in each other.”

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