Manipulation and dishonesty at Facebook were exposed by former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen last month while the company was going through a major rebranding into a new name, Meta. The umbrella company owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp (a major instant messaging service) and Oculus (one of the largest virtual reality technology companies) as well as other smaller, high-tech related companies.
“I used to work at Facebook and joined because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” Haugen said in her testimony to Congress in early October. “But I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more. The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people.”
According to the Washington Post’s analysis of documents released by Haugen, Meta’s upper ranks have weighted angry reactions to social media content more than other types of reactions in their algorithm. The company has failed to monitor and police hateful speech in non-English languages all around the world and has also failed to prevent the spread of misinformation throughout its platform, the Post reported.
In 2019, Apple threatened to pull Facebook from its app store due to the amount of human traffickers using the app. Documents released by Haugen revealed that Facebook placed high-profile figures on a whitelist that allowed them freedom from its community guidelines, according to CNN and the Wall Street Journal.
Record said that Facebook knew that their products were having negative psychological impacts and intentionally misled the public about the extent to which they knew this.
“Facebook was intentionally designing an algorithm to generate clicks and engagement, and they had made an affirmative decision that one of the best ways for them to do that was to push and amplify content that angered people, that made people feel bad, that made people feel anxious, that made people feel less than because as it turns out, that would drive more engagement over a longer period of time with their platforms,” Record said.
In response, Facebook released a statement discussing their commitment to keeping Facebook a safe space to interact. The statement also referenced the complexity of addressing the misinformation issue and “deeper issues” in technological society.
Structural algorithmic change to how the company operates is unlikely to occur, according to Drake journalism professor Chris Snider.
“If they shift now into a different sort of algorithm, that looks like they’re admitting that they did something wrong, which doesn’t seem to be what they want to do,” Snider said. “The thing that a lot of people seem to focus on is ‘Can we make some changes around the algorithm?’ You can go to Facebook, and you can turn off your algorithm.”
Snider said that when he turned his algorithm off for a couple of weeks it was a totally different experience.
“It’s a much better experience with the algorithm, but not necessarily better for my mental well-being,” he said.
Record said that the public has been in a cycle with Facebook where “Mark Zuckerberg is hauled before Congress, makes a seemingly sincere sounding apology, and then changes exactly nothing about the behavior of the organization.”
“I think that Facebook will respond if, and only if, they see an impact on their bottom line,” he said. “What they are most scared of is the fact that they are perceived by [young people] as an old person’s platform … If there is a perception that these harmful behaviors are somehow driving away engagement from younger users, I think that might cause them to change.”
Drake student Jacob Yanacheak said he will continue to use Meta’s services, but that these findings only cement his opinion of the company.
“I agree with the sentiment that Facebook is struggling to reach the younger consumer base. I’ll continue to use Facebook and Instagram despite this news,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of the company … however, this makes me view the company less favorably.”