Whistleblower Reveals Facebook’s Lies: Will the SEC or Congress Act to Curtail Threats to Democracy and Teens from Social Media?
For anyone who cares about the future of liberal democracy, improving the mental health and well-being of children, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, or stopping drug cartels and human trafficking, the recent series in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Facebook Files” is a must-read. Based on a trove of internal documents shared by a Facebook whistleblower, as well as interviews with numerous current and former Facebook employees, the WSJ series describes in detail how Facebook has suppressed or ignored findings from its own internal research that its social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, are deeply flawed and contribute to the spread of false and harmful misinformation, serious mental health problems among teens, and even criminal activity.
Facebook Fails to Stop High-Profile Individuals from Spreading Misinformation and Lies
In the first article in the series, published on September 13th, Jeff Horwitz of the WSJ describes how Facebook, despite publicly claiming that its standards of behavior apply the same to everyone, in fact gives preferential treatment to certain high-profile users through a process known as “whitelisting.” Essentially, Facebook enrolls certain users—those individuals with a large enough following or public profile, or whom some Facebook employee simply wishes to favor—in a program known as “XCheck” that exempts VIPs from algorithms that would otherwise automatically detect and block harassing or violent content. These algorithms mete out an immediate form of “rough justice” to regular users. But XCheck enrollees get the benefit of a delayed, individualized content check by a human reviewer, creating an opportunity for false and harmful misinformation to spread.
In support of its reporting on the XCheck program, the WSJ quotes from a confidential 2019 internal review conducted by Facebook of its white-listing practice, presumably shared by the whistleblower. In this document, Facebook admits: “We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly.” And furthermore: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people [enrolled in XCheck] can violate our standards without any consequences.” Based on an “extensive array of internal Facebook communications,” the WSJ concludes that Facebook has “misled the public and its own Oversight Board.” And that “Facebook knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands.”
Facebook Has Misrepresented the Harm from Instagram to Teen Mental Health
In a subsequent article in the Facebook Files series, WSJ reporters present overwhelming evidence, again, drawn from the internal communications leaked by the Facebook whistleblower, that Facebook researchers have known for several years that the use of Instagram, an image-sharing platform owned by Facebook, is addictive and damaging the mental health of many teenagers, particularly girls. A slide from a 2019 internal Facebook study, summarizing research on the use of Instagram, states: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Another concludes: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” a reaction which “was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” And perhaps most disturbing, the WSJ reports from the same presentation that, “[a]mong teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”
According to the WSJ, Facebook has publicly downplayed the negative effects on teens of Instagram and have failed to make its research available to lawmakers who have asked for it. Indeed, contrary to the documents shared by the Facebook whistleblower, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing in March 2021 that Facebook’s research had shown “that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits.” And in May 2021, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri told reporters that research he had seen suggests that the app’s effects on teen well-being is likely “quite small.”
Facebook Puts Profits Ahead of Stopping Sex Trafficking and Other Crimes
Other articles in the Facebook Files series reveal that Facebook has failed to stop Mexican drug cartel and sex traffickers in other parts of the world from using its platform to conduct criminal activities, particularly in developing countries. The WSJ reports that in some of these countries, Facebook “has few or no people who speak the dialects needed to identify dangerous or criminal uses of the platform.”
But Facebook’s problem is deeper and more profound than just a failure to hire a sufficient number of employees. According to the WSJ’s analysis of the whistleblower’s documents, Facebook “hasn’t fixed the systems” that allow criminals to operate with impunity on its platform. Instead, “priority is given to retaining users, helping business partners and at times placating authoritarian governments, whose support Facebook sometimes needs to operate within their borders.” As one internal document succinctly states: “Current mitigation strategies are not enough.”
Whistleblowers Can Help Shift Control Away from “Power Elites”
As discussed by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore in These Truths: A History of the United States, approximately 70 years ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills decried the formation of a mass society, in which “elites, not the people, make most decisions, long before the people even know there is a decision to be made.” Lepore argues that “[t]he formation of what Mills called ‘power elites’ was directly related to technological shifts” at the start of the computer age. Mills presciently wrote: “As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon . . . and by their decisions mightily affect the everyday lives of ordinary men and women.”
Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow executives at Facebook and Instagram, as well as their Big Tech counterparts, now form such a “power elite.” As the remarkable series by the WSJ shows, one antidote to the troubling and profound impact this elite is having on liberal democratic society including our own children, is for whistleblowers from within these behemoths to come forward and share the truth about how corporate greed is causing these executives to hide the truth from the public. Perhaps then Congress, the SEC, and other government agencies can take appropriate action to protect ordinary men and women, and our children, from harm.
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