Facebook: the tobacco company of the 21st century

  In just under five months, Frances Haugen has gone from disillusioned former Facebook employee to heroine of the moment. Last May, Haugen, 37, left Facebook, taking tens of thousands of documents with her. In October of the same year, she testified publicly on Capitol Hill and was hailed as a “21st century American hero” on the spot. The Wall Street Journal first exposed a series of shocking truths based on Haugen’s documents. The documents show that Facebook refused to reduce misleading content on its platform, knowing that its products could harm the mental health of underage women. In addition, Facebook was well aware of the fact that the platform was being used to incite racial violence in Ethiopia.
  Haugen told a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, “I’m here today because it’s very clear to me that Facebook-owned products are harming the mental health of children, fomenting division in the country and undermining our democracy. The company executives know how to strengthen the security of Facebook and Instagram, yet they remain indifferent because they value huge profits over human lives. Congress needs to act, and they won’t do so without your pressure.”

” Whistleblower” Francis Haugen vs. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

  During her roughly four-hour testimony statement, Haugen repeatedly mentioned that Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms recommend harmful, personalized content to users. She told the senator that Instagram directs users to information about anorexia and that “the algorithm can lead teens from normal topics like healthy recipes all the way to content that promotes anorexia in a very short period of time.”
  Senator Ed Markey hailed Haugen as a “21st century American hero. In fact, she is not the first “whistle blower” to expose the social giant to the public; in 2018, Canadian data analyst Christopher Wylie revealed that his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, had collected the Facebook profiles of millions of American voters. The following year, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for a massive breach of user privacy. When Wylie exposed the incident, Facebook showed remorse and ran full-page apologetic ads in newspapers in the U.K. and the U.S. After learning about Haugen, Wylie was frustrated because the situation hadn’t changed at all. He said, “I feel a little resigned because we’re still talking about the status of the problem, not the solution to it.” Markey said at the hearing, “Facebook is trying to attract a teenage audience with something toxic, and that approach is no different than those tobacco companies.”

Like the tobacco industry, Facebook knows its products are harmful and does nothing about it

  In his book, Charles Arthur, author of Social Warming, explores the dangers of social media, advocating that all social networks be broken up into separate geographic entities. He argues that limiting size on a national basis is the easiest solution to implement and legislate. If the size of the network expands exponentially, then the problem grows geometrically,” he says. Suppose there are 100 users on the platform, they will generate a certain amount of interaction, and we can handle it for now. But if it’s 200 users, then the amount of interaction becomes four times what it was before, and that’s potentially problematic. If it’s 400 people, that’s 16 times as many. The network has expanded rapidly, but the corresponding amount of auditing has not kept pace.” In response, Facebook argued that only a large, resource-rich company like it is capable of handling the huge volume of content audits.
| The State of Facebook’s Young Users |

  Oliver Coghlan, a 23-year-old British student, said he has rarely used Facebook since three years ago. He is considering deleting the app, “I haven’t deleted it yet, but it should be soon, I genuinely don’t like the monopolistic behavior of this company.” He explained that Facebook had tried to influence the results of the 2016 EU referendum and the 2020 U.S. election, which then caused outrage among Internet users, and since then he has been convinced that he should spend less time on Facebook.
  There are few people who share the same view as Coghlan. According to internal documents that have come to light, Facebook is looking for ways to attract and retain a younger audience. In a complaint filed by Haugen’s lawyers with the U.S. financial regulator, a section mentions that young users in “developed countries and regions” rarely use Facebook. It cites an internal document that says the number of young daily active users (ages 18 to 24) on Facebook “has been declining between 2012 and 2013.
  In addition, the study shows that teen engagement is declining in most Western countries and a few non-Western countries. Engagement is a key metric for Facebook, Haugen noted, because the more time users spend on the platform, the more likely they are to attract advertisers. Advertising revenue accounts for $84 billion of Facebook’s $86 billion in annual revenue. Haugen added that Instagram has become key to attracting younger users, and she “wouldn’t be surprised” if the company restarted its recently suspended Instagram Kids program, a children’s version of the app for users aged 10 to 12.
  Igal Arunian of US financial firm Wedbush Securities said social media companies value similar audiences because they want to build loyal users for their platforms. So it would seem that attracting younger users with Messenger Kids (for kids ages 6 to 12), Instagram (for ages 13 and up) or Instagram Kids (if it ever gets developed online) would make good business sense, because over time, those young people are likely to be attracted to Facebook and its 1.9 billion daily active users, and then join it. Arunian said, “Most platforms, not just Facebook, are very focused on the younger demographic. instagram’s development of a children’s version of the app has caused consternation, and while these users under 13 may not become the core audience, the platform still wants to attract young people and slowly nurture them into its loyal users.”
  In a blog post, Facebook admitted that companies in the competitive space do like younger audiences. They said, “Major companies are doing everything they can to attract young people, and so are our competitors. If Facebook doesn’t do that, it’s only worthy of your coverage.”
| Tobacco Companies in the 21st Century |

  Perhaps one day we will look at Facebook the way we look at tobacco companies today. That may seem like an exaggeration, but the analogy is not unreasonable given the deadly harm Facebook has caused.
  However, this argument may overlook Facebook’s enormous size and power and underestimate the magnitude of the problem. Last year’s Facebook outage, which caused a six-hour-long service outage, was a side-effect of how much 3 billion users worldwide rely on Facebook and its social platforms. They are not only a window to the world, but also a channel to develop business. Facebook claims to be a platform for “connecting” friends and family, but in reality, it is much broader and more dangerous.

  Facebook is polluting information sources, and it should pay the price.

  There are indeed parallels between Facebook and tobacco companies. In the early 1960s, researchers at tobacco company Reynolds concluded that smoking caused cancer and had hard evidence in hand. At the same time, rival Philip Morris was drawing up a list of the dozens of carcinogens contained in cigarette smoke. But what was the result? None of this information was made public. For the next 30 years, the tobacco industry refused to acknowledge any evidence that cigarettes were harmful to health.
  Let’s go back to Haugen’s testimony. a 2019 internal document shows that Facebook has long known through research that the ubiquitous skinny bodybuilding images on Instagram were harmful to the psyche of young women. “We’ve caused appearance anxiety in 1/3 of young women,” the document shows, and teens have blamed “high rates of anxiety and depression on Instagram.” So did Mark Zuckerberg acknowledge these facts when he came to Congress last March? No, he didn’t. Instead, he said, “Our research has found that using social platforms to connect with others can have a positive psychological effect.” In other words, smoking is good for your health.
  The bottom line is that when it comes to life safety, Facebook causes more immediate effects than mere psychological harm. Facebook has incited ethnic violence in Ethiopia, but this is not the first time it has been used to spread hate and cause harm. In response, Facebook has taken a laissez-faire approach. While it has continued to promise the public that it will “learn from its mistakes and strive for improvement,” there has been little concrete action. Haugen noted that 87 percent of the money Facebook spends on disinformation is for English-language content. This is not difficult to understand, after all, during the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook was cracked down on by the media and the government for spreading false news. Yet only 9 percent of Facebook users use English, and most of the others live in Africa or Southeast Asia, where disinformation is spreading rampantly on the local Facebook platform.
  Facebook is like a tall, powerful giant that simply cannot be subdued. People often choose to do as they are told when confronted with it. Calls for a boycott are not helpful, because users find it convenient and useful, and advertisers find it profitable. However, we are not powerless in the face of giants.
  Haugen’s “whistle blowing” resonates with another key group: parents who are concerned about the safety of their children. Experts predict that an organization like the Mothers Against Drunk Driving will likely emerge in the future. This association succeeded in getting the government to change the bill to make the criteria for drunk driving more stringent, despite strong opposition from the alcohol industry.
  If the government is determined to take action, there are many things it can do. The first would be to look at Facebook’s algorithms so that it could find evidence that the company knowingly violated the law. Its quest for higher user “engagement” and greater scale suggests it is profiting from the anger of Internet users. The documents that have come to light show that Facebook executives clearly had options to mitigate the anger of Internet users, but refused to use them.
  In addition, it is necessary for the U.S. Congress to amend Section 230 of the Communications Regulatory Act, which grants immunity to social media companies. If newspapers are being convicted for defamation and manufacturers are being sued for faulty products, then Facebook should also be sued for the harm it causes. As one activist put it, to have a deterrent effect, it must face “sky-high” fines. This is the “polluter pays” principle, Facebook polluted the source, it should pay the price.
  In the face of the law, tobacco companies eventually had to bow down. However, they concealed the truth and trampled on people’s lives for the sake of profits, which made all the protection measures come too late and millions of people lost their lives. This time, we really can’t wait any longer.

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