In the month where Facebook rebranded to ‘Meta’, infamous founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was once again making global headlines for all the wrong reasons. Already tarnished by previous scandals, such as data mining and spreading misinformation, any remaining shred of moral decency held by the tech giant was eviscerated.
The scandal centres around Facebook’s apparent decision to prioritise ‘growth over safety’ by turning a blind eye to the deficiencies of its recommendation algorithm. The whistle was blown when a former employee named Frances Haugen released damning documents in relation to the algorithm. Haugen, who was formerly a product manager on the civic integrity team at Facebook, shared thousands of documents with New York Times tech-industry journalist, Jeff Horwitz.
Horwitz and Haugen sieved through tens of thousands of documents from her time at the Silicon Valley corporation. Together, they arranged the documents into eleven coordinated releases via the New York Times. Immediately, the media storm erupted. Overnight, Haugen became a household name in the States, appearing on TV shows and in other articles attempting to spread her concerns about Facebook.
Contained within the documents were various instances of malpractice. One such issue was the company’s moderation system known as ‘XCheck’. The algorithm was shown within the documents to treat the content of politicians, celebrities and athletes to a much lower standard of scrutiny than the average user on the platform. It highlighted various instances in which egregious breaches of user regulations were overlooked due to the user’s prominence or position.
Amongst other things, the documents which have been coined the ‘Facebook Files’ also appeared to allege a skirting of legalities with regards to the company’s punishment for the disreputable Cambridge Analytica scandal. They appeared to suggest that the astronomical fine Facebook received, $5 billion, was only this high as it was a deliberate attempt to appease the court and stave off any notions of personal liability on behalf of Zuckerberg.
Perhaps the most worrying revelations contained within the Facebook files were in regards to Instagram. The photo-sharing platform is owned by Facebook, and according to the leaked documents they conducted an internal review of the application. In this review, it was found that up to a third of teenage girls surveyed felt Instagram made them feel bad about their bodies. It also highlighted the fact that young girls were also disproportionately more likely to be suggested potentially triggering content with regards to body dysmorphia and other harmful topics.
The documents obtained by Haugen not only highlight this worrying internal review but also manage to shed light on the fact that Facebook did virtually nothing to rectify any of these issues. Instead, it chose to essentially turn a blind eye to the findings of the review because it felt that if no one outside of the company knew about the problem then it would simply cease to exist. The callous nature of this decision highlights the toxicity prominent within Facebook which allows potential advertiser income to be placed above the health and wellbeing of some of the platform’s most vulnerable and impressionable users.
In light of these damning documents being released into the public sphere, Haugen was called to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee. For over three and a half hours, Haugen sat before the subcommittee in Washington DC highlighting the nefarious actions of her former employer. In the hearing, she was quoted as saying that Facebook and its other platforms ‘harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. Haugen also brought to light other worrying claims such as alleging that Facebook purposely kept systems offline which had the potential to halt the spread of misinformation, a decision which she believes played a part in the January 6th Capitol riots.
Whether or not Zuckerberg and Facebook are held accountable for these allegations remains to be seen. However, regardless of any future punishment, the extent to which Facebook disregards the safety and rights of its users will surely result in a significant drop in its user base. Furthermore, in the midst of all this upheaval, the courage of Frances Haugen and her selfless act should not be forgotten.
Rory Fleming – Politics Writer