Whistleblower Outs Facebook for Choosing ‘Profits Over Safety’

Photo from Reuters.com

Social media conglomerate Facebook has been scathed with revelations that have initiated an outpour of criticism from legislators and the public.

Beginning in September 2021, international daily newspaper The Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation.” The ongoing multi-part series report details tens of thousands of Facebook’s own research documents provided by an anonymous internal whistleblower.

These files include a multitude of discoveries, ranging from the site’s perpetuation of vaccine and election misinformation, worsening of body image amongst teenagers, failures in the response to human trafficking and contribution to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection — making this the company’s largest impropriety since their Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018.

Here’s VALLEY’s rundown of the Facebook files.

The Facebook Files

To put it simply, Facebook is aware of the harm its platform causes to society. The company’s own research indicates it stokes hate, misinformation and political polarization — but hides what it knows.

Photo from Businessinsider.com

Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has publicly stated his platform allows its over three billion users to speak on equal grounds, no matter their status or fame, and that its behavioral standards apply to everyone. However, the Facebook Files reveal millions of celebrities, politicians and public figures are free of these guidelines through a private system called “XCheck.”

According to The Journal, the program was initially designed “as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts.” Documents show at least 5.8 million high-profile users are exempt “from some or all of its rules” and have at times protected public figures whose content incites violence or contains harassment — violations that would penalize regular users.

This isn’t the only instance where Zuckerberg’s statements directly contradict the files. In a United States Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Oct. 28, 2020, he said Facebook was taking down “about 94 percent” of hate speech on the platform. Records show the company takes down less than five percent of hate speech and about 0.6 percent of violence and incitement.

A large portion of the files also includes studies about Instagram. Owned by Facebook, the service has investigated its effects on teen mental health, human trafficking and political discourse for three years. “We make body image issues worse for one in three girls,” read one slide for an internal research presentation.

Documents reveal Facebook has made minimal effort to address these issues and downplays them in public. They also previously denied Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn’s request that they release their research on the impact of its platforms on youth mental health as it is “kept confidential to promote frank and open dialogue and brainstorming internally.”

Another profound revelation is how slow Facebook has been in stopping human trafficking and drug cartel operations. The Journal reports groups were using the site for recruitment, training and paying hitmen but were not prohibited from posting. Employees also flagged advertisements tricking women into sex work, but the company’s response was “inadequate or nothing at all.”

The Whistleblower
Photo from CBSNews.com

“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks, and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before.”

Frances Haugen

Frances Haugen revealed her identity in an interview with “60 Minutes” on Oct. 3, 2021. She worked as a product manager for 20 years at large tech companies such as Google, Pinterest, Yelp and Facebook until May 2021. Her jobs have largely focused on algorithms and recommendation systems like the one powering Facebook.

Haugen was recruited by the company in 2019. She worked on issues concerning democracy and led the civic misinformation team before working on counterespionage, according to her personal website. Her passion for combatting misinformation stems from an experience of losing a friend to online conspiracy theories.

After the 2020 election, Facebook decided to disband its civic integrity unit. Haugen said this “really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me,” and described it as the moment she realized she does not “trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”

She believes the prime cause of the site’s problems is a change made to their algorithms in 2018. It optimizes content receiving high engagements and reactions, but internal research shows hateful, divisive and polarizing posts get the most traction.

“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 said.

Photo from CBSNews.com

On Oct. 5, 2021, Haugen testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. Here she expressed her desire to solve the problems plaguing social media. “I believe in the potential of Facebook,” Haugen said. “We can have social media we enjoy, that connects us without tearing apart our democracy, putting our children in danger and sewing ethnic violence around the world.”

Facebook’s Response

Facebook has since denied both Haugen’s claims and the findings of their researchers. The day after Haugen revealed her identity, however, the company lost $6 billion in profits and endured a global shutdown for nearly six hours.

On Oct. 28, 2021, Zuckerberg introduced the “metaverse” — a platform where users can interact via virtual and augmented realities (think “Ready Player One”). In the announcement video, he also said Facebook would change its name to Meta “to reflect who we are and what we hope to build.” This concept remains mainly theoretical as of now, but the company has not wasted time capitalizing on the idea — already investing $10 billion this year alone.

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