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Oct 7, 2021 5 min read

Facebook's Tobacco Moment in the Toughest of All Weeks for Mark Zuckerberg

Wiser! Essay: It's hard to imagine a tougher week for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The whistleblower talked to Congress, painting a damning picture, putting profits before safety. To top it off, Facebook scored an own goal, taking the entire network offline for over 5 hours!

Big Trouble In Little DC for Zuckerberg

This has been a tough week for Facebook. It may even turn out to be a pivotal one: Facebook's tobacco moment!

The build-up started last month when the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles called The Facebook Files. They reported on internal Facebook research and the insight of a whistleblower who appropriated documents to support her claims.

The whistleblower's central claim was that Facebook knowingly put profits before safety. That they knew of the hate, misinformation, and conspiracy on the platform and they chose to ignore it.

Worse, the Facebook executive chose to deliberately mislead and hide the findings of their own internal research.

This was all damning stuff reported by a team of highly credible investigative journalists.

That was until the whistleblower appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes last weekend. Facebook responded with a fairly bland (and, IMHO, weak) PR statement saying that nobody was doing more than Facebook to eradicate bad behaviour in the world.

Then came Congress on Tuesday. In front of a US Senate subcommittee, the whistleblower, Frances Haugen gave her testimony and answered questions from US lawmakers.

This was damning for Facebook.  Ms Haugen testified about;

🔥 Instagram’s effects on teenage girls’ mental health. Facebook's own internal research showed a significant mental-health issue amongst teenagers that they played down in public.

🔥 how its algorithms foster discord. Internal memos show how a big 2018 change rewarded outrage and that CEO Mark Zuckerberg resisted proposed fixes. This relates to the change in the way News Feed works which was to favour posts from friends and family over reliable news channels. As an unintended consequence, a fake news story reshared by Auntie Mary would get more views than a real story posted by the Washington Post. The WSJ reported how political parties have changed policies in response to the change in the News Feed.

🔥 how drug cartels and human traffickers use its services openly. Facebook's employees have raised alarms about how the site is being openly used in developing countries for a range of illegal activities such as the hiring of hitmen or the exploitation of young children in sex trafficking. (I wrote about the role of Facebook Messenger in this article about Apple's child protection measures.)

🔥 how misinformation was used to spread hate and incite violence. The biggest example is in Myanmar and the genocide of the Rohingya people. The United Nations specifically blamed Facebook for playing a "determining role".

🔥 the company's rules that favoured elites. A program known as XCheck gave millions of celebrities, politicians and high-profile users special treatment that meant they would avoid moderation and could abuse Community Guidelines in a way that ordinary Facebook users could not.

The point is...

Many of these stories are not new news.

👉In 2019, MIT Tech Review found Eastern European troll farms reached 140 million people a month with propaganda, and 75% of those users saw it because Facebook’s recommendation engine served it to them.

👉When ProPublica investigated Facebook Marketplace they found thousands of fake accounts participating in a wide variety of scams.

👉Last month, The New York Times revealed that Facebook took measures to improve its reputation by pumping pro-Facebook stories into the News Feed, an effort known as “Project Amplify.”

👉A study by the online advocacy group Avaaz found that Facebook could have prevented an estimated 10.1 billion views of the most prominent pages that repeatedly shared misinformation relating to the US presidential election.

The study also found the top 100 most popular false or misleading stories on Facebook, related to the 2020 elections, received an estimated 162 million views. And, although each of the 100 stories had a fact-check publicly available from an organization working in partnership with Facebook, 24% of the stories had no warning labels to inform users of falsehood.

‌Is Facebook the new tobacco?

Cigarette companies knew their products were toxic and harmful but put profits before welfare, suppressed their own data and continued to promote the products.

Now replace "Cigarette companies" with "Facebook". ‌
‌This is the essence of the testimony from Francis Haugen. And whilst it is true that this is not new news, there is a sense amongst all the commentary I've read and listened to this week that this time, it's different.
‌Facebook's response to Ms Haugen's testimony was to go on a PR offensive to both discredit the whistleblower and deny the evidence from its own internal research.

Watch Monika Bickert, Facebook's VP for Content Policy lead the defence in this 10 min interview with CNN.‌
‌Mark Zuckerberg responded with a plea to Congress to regulate BigTech. He posted the question "what is the right age for teens to use Internet Services?" (which implies that it's teenagers who are to blame).

Excerpt from Mark Zuckerberg's response

‌Although a better question would be "how can a CEO of a publicly listed company that has the ability to influence over a third of the world's population be permitted to control 57% of voting rights, even though he owns less than 30% of the company's shares?". (This goes back to 2012 before Facebook went public when major shareholders ceded their voting rights to the Zuck.)‌
‌However you look at this, it doesn't look good for Facebook. Whether this blows over or not is hard to say. But the momentum is against Facebook and it's growing.‌
‌Facebook has the ability to influence more people than any other religion, government or institution in the history of mankind and the man at the helm is accountable to no one.‌
‌IMHO, this is the heart of the matter. Facebook is opaque and nobody really knows what the algorithms do or what the consequences of the technology are. Without checks, balances and accountability, the largest experiment ever in human interactions with technology looks likely to end in tears.

Additional Sources of Insight and Information

The Facebook Files

Zuckerberg responds to the whistleblower's claims. Source: ePrimeFeed

Was Biden right when he said, "they're killing people" (about Facebook)? Source: Wiser!

Russia's use of Facebook to interfere with the US elections in 2016 is documented in the book An Ugly Truth. It explains how Russian agents spent around $100k on Facebook ads that spread misinformation seen by 125 million Americans. The ads were designed to promote Donald Trump and against Hilary Clinton.

Why Facebook's moderator fail. Source: Buzzfeed

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