It wasn’t a huge surprise when a Facebook whistleblower told US Congress on October 5 that the social media giant prioritized growth and profits over anything else. That’s what for-profit companies do. The bombshell was that despite knowing about grave social impacts of a metrics-driven strategy to grow “meaningful social interactions,” Facebook leadership has continued to rely on this approach and rewarded employees based on how much they encouraged user engagement, good or bad.
The fallout of a maddening drive to boost engagement has led to mental health issues on one end of the spectrum to promoting violence on the other. The whistleblower also claimed that Facebook lets children operate accounts despite knowledge of their under-age status, opening them up to harm. Everything is big on Facebook, including bullying, hate speech and malicious propaganda.
Those concerns have been previously highlighted by health advocates and consumer activists – now it seems official. It was the misuse of Facebook platform to spread conspiracy theories during Brexit and the US presidential election in 2016 that first caught the US lawmakers’ attention. Later on during the congressional hearings, the Facebook leadership pledged to do better to regulate malevolent political activity.
Five years on, the concerns about Facebook relate mostly to personal safety, especially relating to the Instagram app, which is said to cause anxiety and depression among teenagers. The whistleblower has cited internal Facebook research that shows how Instagram worsens self-esteem and eating disorders among teenage girls, and even promotes suicidal thoughts among them.
A section of critics has long argued that Facebook is akin to a publisher and that, just like newspapers, it must be held accountable for content posted by its users. The argument goes that if there is personal liability imposed on Facebook executives who make decisions on prioritizing content and tweaking algorithms, they will do a better job to ensure that they have the checks and balances to detect, block and remove anti-social content as well as users who violate norms of decency.
Even though the US Congress is now in a strong position to establish ground rules around ensuring user safety and curbing fake news, it is not clear which direction they will go in to regulate social media. Facebook CEO and controlling shareholder Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have the slogan, “Move fast and break things.” So far it has paid off in halting reforms. Breaking up Facebook, in order to reduce its social and political influence, has been oft-debated, but there is no progress on that front.
The pressure, however, is gradually building up. If more whistleblowers come forward in the future, it will be difficult for lobbying dollars to stop meaningful regulatory measures. And actions taken in the US will have a ripple-effect around the globe, helping developing countries such as Pakistan to hold social media giants accountable for genuinely harmful content. Recent Facebook (and WhatsApp) outage showed the platforms have become a necessity. But it doesn’t have to be a bad romance.