Column: Facebook under fire | Opinion


If Mark Zuckerberg seems irritable, he has good reason. His Facebook Empire is facing a digital scandal caused by a former employee turned whistleblower.

There is no port in the storm. Antagonist Frances Haugen has squarely made the social media giant, led by founder Zuckerberg, the target of accusations that he chooses profit over security by magnifying hatred and misinformation.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Haugen’s case relies on copies she secretly made of internal research and other documents, as well as personal analysis as a Facebook product manager and data expert before she left in May.

She’s determined to expose how Facebook’s algorithms indulge in contentious content that she says is not about the company because the shocking posts are eye-catching. It’s the same notion that favors supermarket tabloids.

Algorithms are like recipes for your favorite food. They tell computers how to concoct the desired functions.

Haugen argues that Facebook’s decision to change its news feed algorithms in January 2018 to favor posts from family, friends and groups over news content produced toxic results. The media felt the same at the time.

On January 30, 2018, a delegation from the News Media Alliance, which represents some 2,000 news producers, met with Facebook’s Campbell Brown in New York to discuss their concerns. Brown is the former CNN and NBC news anchor who joined Facebook in 2017, tasked with mending tattered relationships with news outlets.

Alliance President and CEO David Chavern said this week that the half-day meeting, while pleasant enough, did not go well. Despite fears expressed by the delegation that the change in algorithms will inevitably invite divisive posts to the detriment of trustworthy topical content, Facebook stuck to its decision.

“They said users have expressed a preference for a more personal engagement with the news,” Chavern said. “We replied that this would increase the consequences of disinformation and not be an antidote to fake news. We have provided a lot of data to support our position.

Yet little has happened in the meantime.

Then, last month, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles highlighting the consequences. Among the document’s findings, he reported evidence showing that Facebook’s change in algorithms was having the opposite effect of the intended effect of creating a healthier place for users; that it produced a more angry and harmful engagement; that it contributed to the reluctance to vaccinate and that Facebook’s Instagram photo-sharing app has caused dangerous anxiety among some of the millions of young girls who use it.

The Journal did not name the source of her leaked information, but Haugen was exposed on October 2 when she appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” show. Four days later, she testified before a U.S. Senate committee, urging lawmakers to regulate Facebook.

To find out why and when this story exploded, you need to know a little more about the whistleblower.

Frances Haugen, 37, graduated in electrical and computer engineering from Olin College, a private engineering school in suburban Boston. She also holds an MBA from Harvard. She worked at Google and Pinterest before joining Facebook’s Civic Integrity Unit in January 2019. The unit’s mission was to control political lies, violent content and other abuse aimed at disrupting elections.

Haugen had his epiphany on Facebook when he disbanded his unit after the presidential election won by Joe Biden last November. She saw the move as removing safeguards against the kind of inflammatory content that contributed to the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising, causing her to be suspicious of Facebook’s willingness to “actually invest what needs to be invested in. avoid that it is dangerous “.

In addition to telling her story to the Journal and CBS, she filed a complaint with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing Facebook of misleading investors and advertisers.

In his “60 Minute” interview, Haugen said that Facebook doesn’t discourage shocking and problematic posts because they receive a higher volume of responses and, as a result, attract more users and ad dollars. The social media company’s annual revenue has skyrocketed since the algorithm change in 2018, from $ 56 billion to $ 119 billion today. Its market value is now close to $ 1 trillion.

Haugen’s evidence is troubling enough for the SEC, the Justice Department, and Congress to investigate the inner workings of Facebook – and other social media companies. If they are deliberately, or even unintentionally, contributing to the country’s disinformation crisis, the government must step in and stop it.

No less alarming is Instagram’s impact on young users, as many girls have negative feelings about their bodies. Facebook’s plan to create Instagram for Kids only makes things worse. He should drop that idea.

What Mark Zuckerberg needs to understand is that ethical standards need to go beyond words to transparent action. In his response to the litany of wrongs caused by Haugen on Facebook, he said the company cares “deeply about issues such as safety, well-being and mental health.”

It’s hard to accept this claim when the first published reaction to Haugen’s “60 Minutes” appearance featured a video of Facebook’s new Ray-Ban smart glasses showing Zuckerberg sailing with his wife.

Bill Ketter is senior vice president of CNHI. Contact him at [email protected]

About Marion Alexander

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