Facebook’s stocks plunged by 5% yesterday following another devastating blow to its already long-tarnished image.
The identity of the previously anonymous Facebook Files whistleblower was revealed as ex-employee and data scientist Frances Haugen. During her time at the platform, she secretly copied thousands of pages of internal documents that she said demonstrate the social media giant, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, put “profit over safety”.
The documents she copied, which included reams of internal research into the consequences of some of the platform’s algorithms, were leaked earlier this year. But, until now, the whistleblower’s identity has not been known.
Haugen now says she will testify in front of the US Securities and Exchange Commission to back up her complaint.
In an interview with CBS News show ‘60 Minutes Overtime’, she said that “I’ve seen a bunch of social networks, and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before”.
Haugen claims that Facebook amplifies devise content so it makes more money. She explained that it’s easier to elicit users’ responses by presenting them with controversial or hateful content. This drives up engagement and makes them spend longer on the platform, thus increasing Facebook’s profits.
This practice, she said, creates “conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook — and Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.”
The whistleblower said that if you sit and scroll Facebook for 10 minutes, you might only see around 100 pieces of content. But Facebook actually has thousands of options it could show you. But an algorithm created in 2018 decides what kind of content to show depending on how much engagement Facebook thinks it will make.
“Misinformation, angry content, is enticing to people and keeps them on the platform,” she said in her groundbreaking interview.
She added, “Facebook has realised that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click fewer ads, they’ll [Facebook] make less money.”
Another revelation was that Facebook intentionally turned off misinformation “safety systems” during the US 2020 presidential elections. But Facebook’s stance also impacted European political parties and forced them to take “extreme policy positions” to raise their profile with the public on social media.
Documents leaked by Haugen also showed that Facebook was aware of the damage Instagram caused to young girls. This included increased rates of suicidal thoughts, issues related to eating disorders, and depression. It was even aware that the latter drove girls to use the platform more, thus exacerbating the problem.
The recent revelations are just another addition to the beleaguered social media platform’s woes. In March 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) filed a lawsuit against Facebook, accusing them of ‘deceptive commercial practices’.
The media freedom organisation alleges that Facebook allows the proliferation of disinformation, fake news and hate speech on its platform. They say this is often to the detriment of journalists and is a stark contrast to their public statements on the matter.
Facebook claims that it will undertake “professional due diligence in providing a safe, secure, and error-free environment” and that users cannot share anything that is “unlawful, misleading, discriminatory, or fraudulent.”
It also states in its community standards that it will significantly reduce the distribution of fake news and disinformation.
According to various testimonies presented by RSF, Facebook posts linking to fake news and “deceptive sites” had at least 1.2 billion interactions in Q4 2020. In the same year, UNESCO published a report calling Facebook the “least safe” social media platform. This was supported with additional reports that identified the network as a “hub of vaccine conspiracy theories”.
In 2020, another Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang accused Facebook of ignoring the ways in which world governments abused the platform to manipulate voters and even cause civil unrest. Despite notifying her superiors, Facebook failed to act, leaving Zhang feeling that she had blood on her hands.
In 2018, The Shift revealed how Facebook groups were being used in Malta to stir up hatred, coordinate harassment and attacks, and even share the personal information of journalists and activists.