Most Facebook scandals come and go. However, its latest set of scandals feels different since the company’s own workforce has led it.
The last time Facebook was under significant public scrutiny was in 2018, with the infamous Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal (1).
With every passing day, the case for deleting our Facebook accounts, including Instagram, seems to develop more potent.
Increasingly, what seemed and felt like an organic social media experience for users, over the past many years, has proven to be a carefully coordinated experiment for Facebook executives, with often worrying and harmful results (2).
Recently, The Times reported that Facebook executives made concerted efforts to distance their boss, Mark Zuckerberg, from scandals involving the company by having him talk almost exclusively about upcoming products. According to media reports (3), Facebook had put the strategy on test back in January when Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, told Reuters that the 6th January attack on the US Capitol was not “largely” organized on Facebook (4). Spoiler alert: it was (5).
The Times also reported that a Facebook spokesperson had denied the company changing its approach on the matter.
The social media giant has been under extreme scrutiny over the past few weeks following a series of scandals such as its harmful psychological impact on teenage girls (6), responding weakly to human traffickers and drug cartels using its platforms (7), and failing to take actions when high-profile users posted conspiratorial and violent content (8). All of this is in addition to the social media giant’s complex history with political propaganda.
In short, it is a good time to leave any of your Facebook accounts by the wayside. And from what we see on media reports, the company’s executives are well aware of their platforms’ harmful effects on society.
Don’t let a few ads and pro-Facebook fluffs distract you.
Keep reading on to know more.
Summary: Latest Scandals of Facebook
Last month, the Wall Street Journal brought out a series of stories about Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook based on the company’s researchers’ internal findings known as The Facebook Files (9), highlighted a damming number of issues unfolding on the globe’s most prominent social network yet.
According to stories, there is “an opaque, separate system of government for elite users” called “XCheck” (10). It provided evidence that Instagram can be significantly harmful to many teenage girls (11). It also highlighted how entire political parties had modified their policies to align with Facebook’s News Feed algorithm changes (12). In addition, as per the stories, there is a massive inequality on how the social media giant moderates content in foreign nations compared to the money it has invested in the US (13).
Following the massive public attention, members of Congress have announced a probe (14). As reporters at other media outlets have started contributing their own materials, the scrutiny has grown since then.
For instance, MIT Technology Review recently found that despite Facebook making a significant investment in security, by October 2019, more than 140 billion people a month viewed the Eastern European troll farms. And there was propaganda since 75% of those users saw it not because they followed a page but because the recommendation engine of Facebook served it to them (15).
Another example includes an investigation of Facebook Marketplace by ProPublica, which found thousands of fake accounts participating in multiple scams (16).
The New York Times also unveiled how Facebook sought to improve its reputation by elevating pro-Facebook stories into its News Feed (17), an effort called “Project Amplify.” It is worth highlighting that Facebook has tested this project in three cities so far, and it is not sure whether it will continue.
Notably, Facebook has confirmed details in some of these reports, such as withholding the top sites report. However, it has pushed back on others. A Facebook spokesperson defended the site’s efforts to remove human traffickers, stating Facebook prohibits human exploitation “in no uncertain terms.”
Most Facebook scandals come and go. However, its latest set of scandals feels different since the company’s own workforce has led it.
Facebook Ads Can Get People to Make a Purchase But Can’t Change Their Politics?
Today, almost everyone agrees that Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic targeting was an overblown marketing spin (18). However, the idea that Facebook and other social media networks are slowly reshaping our society with their data, ads practices, ranking algorithms, and engagement metrics has made it an international concern.
Facebook is an all-time excellent business since its ads are quite effective in getting people to purchase things. However, the company still wants us to believe that it is not similarly effective when it comes to getting people to change their politics.
It indicates a disconnect, and the company has never really resolved it.
Notably, Facebook poured over 13 billion USD into safety and security. It got more than 40k people on board to police its network. The company also created a real aptitude to disrupt fake accounts’ networks. Facebook got more comfortable inserting high-quality information into its News Feed, whether about climate change or coronavirus. Interestingly, the company barely even made a footnote in the story during the 2020 US presidential election.
However, there are still multiple questions. How exactly did Facebook police the network? How is it policing different countries? What are the effects of a personalized feed on an individual, nation, and politics?
Like always, there is a risk of being a technological determinist to believe that Facebook’s algorithms are more powerful. According to The Verge (19), other platforms such as Fox News can often inspire a much larger shift in someone’s politics.
There are multiple reasons why we would all stand to benefit if we can isolate the effects of Facebook or any other social media sites like TikTok, or Twitter, or YouTube. However, since they keep their data private, for both good and bad reasons, there are a lot of arguments about subjects such as what Facebook is based on and how it makes us feel. And at the end, Facebook and everyone ends up talking past one another.
Similarly, there are also questions like, what are the effects of Instagram on teenage girls. Notably, one of the most pressing questions in the recent reports you will find is something similar; what are the effects of social networks on us? The same question Cambridge Analytica asked.
However, the story is different this time; there is real data to look at, data produced by Facebook itself.
If you see most media reports on Facebook, you will find Facebook’s employees being pretty much bristled about these questions. Their most common responses include, only because one researcher said something does not mean it is true, or why is not anyone asking to see internal research from TikTok, Twitter, or YouTube.
However, what makes the scandal feels different is how most of Facebook’s researchers are speaking out in public that their superiors have massively ignored or stymied their findings. And from what we read on their research indicates that Facebook has often acted irresponsibly.
What Makes These New Scandals So Different?
On Sunday, a former employee of Facebook, who had previously revealed internal documents about the company, took the opportunity to reveal her identity on 60 Minutes (20).
Frances Haugen, a former product manager of the civic integrity team, Facebook, had shared the documents that led to an explosive series of those above-mentioned Wall Street Journal articles.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the company and what was good for the public. And Facebook repeatedly chose to optimize its own interests such as making a profit,” said Haugen in the interview with 60 Minutes.
The employee also shared new allegations not previously covered in the WSJ’s extensive reports about how Facebook allegedly relaxed its standards on misinformation about the 2020 presidential elections ahead of the 6th January riots at the US Capital (21).
On Friday, the NYT published an internal staff memo (22), in which Nick Clegg, the Vice President of Public Policy and Global Affairs, Facebook, wrote that the responsibility of 6th January “rests equally with the perpetrators of the violence and those in politics and those who actively encourage them.” In addition, Clegg wrote that Facebook is not the “primary cause of polarization.”
Facebook has been mired in political and PR crises several times in the past few years. However, it is a staggering moment for the company and its billions of users.
The company has already paused the development of its Instagram for Kids product, launched a PR offensive dismissing the WSJ’s reporting as “cherry-picking,” and brought two executives before Congress to testify in response to whistleblowers’ revealed documents.
According to available media reports (23), the whistleblower has also shared internal documents of Facebook with lawmakers and is likely to testify before Congress members on Tuesday. And the fact that the whistleblower is collaborating with lawmakers indicates how politicians from both sides are looking at social media platforms such as Facebook with more concerns. In other words, they are becoming more adept at scrutinizing them.
“It is the first time I can remember anything this dramatic, with an anonymous whistleblower, these many documents, and a big reveal,” stated Katie Harbath, a former public policy director at Facebook. She is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Bipartisan Policy Centre.
Even though many Facebook employees have spoken out against the company internally or anonymously, it is rare, particularly for a high-ranking level employee to ever speak out on the record against the company. It is the first time there is so much detailed evidence suggesting that Facebook seemingly understands the harm its system causes but ignores it.
And never before has Facebook had such a press rollout. First, it posted a series of investigative reports with major publications. Then, it was unveiled on primetime tv and soon went for testimony before Congress. Everything within a span of a few weeks.
And the extent to which the social media giant knew about the harmful effects of its products and withheld that information from the public has compelled lawmakers like Sen. Richard Blumenthal to compare Facebook’s tactics to those of Big Tobacco (24).
And Facebook had already responded to the allegations with its defense playbook, similar to what it had done when President Joe Biden critiqued the company for “killing people” with the misinformation about COVID-19 on its platform (25). The company argued that the arguments are sensationalized and not sure. The company leaders argued that the information is being taken out of context, and Facebook is not the only one responsible for the world’s problems.
And like Facebook always does, for instance, with the recent debate on COVID-19 misinformation with Biden, the company questioned the credibility of outside research on the platform’s functions.
However, more importantly, this time, Facebook even went as far as discrediting some of its own internal researchers’ findings of the negative effects of its products (Instagram) on teenagers.
Last week, Facebook even distributed an annotated version of the original research initially published in the Journal (26). The company stated that its researchers’ slide titles “may be sensationalizing” findings that Instagram can negatively affect teenage girls’ body image issues in the annotated slides. The company further stated that the study’s size was limited.
And the way the company is disputing the findings of its own staff’s research indicates how damaging reports coming out of whistleblower’s documents are and how urgently the company is trying to change the narrative.
According to Yaël Eisenstat, the former global head of elections integrity operations of Facebook, “this is a big moment.” Notably, she has been a vocal critic of the company since she resigned in November 2018. “We have known many issues over the years, via researches and journalists. However, Facebook has always claimed to have an ax to grind, and we should not trust what anyone says. However, this time, the documents speak for themselves,” told Eisenstat to Recode.
The big reason why these latest scandals feel so significant is that politicians feel deceived by the company as they had previously asked Mark Zuckerberg about the mental health effects of Instagram on teenagers and children. However, the company was not forthcoming.
In March, Zuckerberg told Congress that he did not believe the research was conclusive. He did not reveal the negative findings of the research cited in WSJ reporting, including the fact that 13% of British teenage users and 6% of American teenage users studied with suicidal thoughts tracked down the urge to kill themselves on Instagram (27).
Notably, the company had also not shared the research in response to two separate inquiries by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Cathy McMorris when they asked about its internal research on the matter after the congressional hearing in March.
Instead of being shut by the company’s report about communication tightening among the staff, more of Facebook’s former and current employees are starting to discuss its issues on Twitter openly and within internal settings, as per the New York Times (28).
Some researchers at the company also feel “embarrassed” that the company is dismissing the quality of its own staff’s work, said The Times. Notably, like any other major tech company, Facebook prides itself on hiring best-in-the-world researchers and engineering talent. If it taints Facebook’s engineering and academic communities, it can limit the caliber of employees’ ability to recruit.
According to Eisenstat, Facebook is miscalculating the watershed moment; “not only the public has an eye on these documents, but because its own employees have started to get angry.”
Notably, Facebook executives have testified under oath that they will not retaliate against the whistleblower for addressing Congress (29).
However, a whistleblower coming forward is much more than an individual. She has reignited longstanding debates both inside and outside the company about the flaws of Facebook.
She provided an unprecedented look at the extent to which Facebook disregards the life-and-death consequences of its own decisions and products. She has made way for others to speak out.
The Bigger Question Still Remains: What is Social Media Doing to Us?
It seems that Facebook has been genuinely surprised by the finding that Instagram can raise anxiety and depression in teenage girls.
However, we can say that the company often acts irresponsibly despite the full knowledge of its impact. For instance, Facebook allocated massive resources in removing misleading content in the US compared to the rest of the countries.
And even in the US, it is arguably under-funded in safety and security. According to Samidh Chakrabarti, the leader of Facebook’s civic integrity team until 2021, put it: the company’s 13 billion USD investment represents only about 4% of its revenue (30).
And, of course, despite all of this, Facebook is thriving. There is a 7% Y-O-Y increase in its daily users. Profits are up too. The post-pandemic ad business is exploding so hard that even online ad also-rans such as Twitter and Pinterest are having a banner year.
Notably, Facebook’s hardware business is also turning quietly into a success, potentially making the path for here to the metaverse.
However, we still don’t know what the social media platform is doing to us. And now it seems that no one in the company or worldwide has gotten a hold of it. And hence, the company’s reputation is in free fall once again.
One of the most natural reactions to such a state of affairs, if running a company, would be to do less of everything: less research, no negative studies, no negative headlines. And when Facebook made a move last month, making it harder for people to volunteer their News Feed data to an external research program, it became clear that Facebook is also heading in the same direction.
But what if Facebook invested in more open research instead? What if it publicly pressured its peers to join? What if the company routinely published its findings and allowed an audit of its data? What if Facebook made it dramatically easier to study the platform for qualified researchers independently?
It would be unprecedented in the history of business. And above all, Facebook is an unprecedented business worldwide. It can no longer build trust via blog posts and tweets. However, it would be a great start for Facebook to help people understand its effects on society, politics, and human behavior.
However, it doesn’t seem to be doing things this way. Instead, Facebook is more interested in different types of research, such as “what if we show people the good news about Facebook?” For instance, a recent story appeared on the platform informing users of an incident where the social media platform helped a woman find her lost horse. Perhaps that would move the needle.
We may joke as much as we want to, but we can deny the real idea behind the test – over time, one can reshape people’s perception by the promoted narratives. What appears in the News Feed can gradually shift people’s opinions. A concern significantly downplayed by Facebook’s PR team.
It seems that Facebook has finally decided to see things for itself. To the public, it promises not to be as powerful as its apostate research claimed it is. And then, with Project Amplify, the social media giant will see if they are right or not.