Needless to say, social media behemoth Facebook had a bad week last week.
Last Monday, it (along with fellow social media network Snapchat, which is owned by Facebook) endured a global shutdown that sent the tech giant’s stock shares tumbling. Reportedly, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg lost approximately $7 billion in personal wealth in one day due to the outage.
But even that was perhaps not as costly as what happened the next day, when former Facebook executive-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the company’s money-making practices, which include sowing political and social division and targeting children with painful, esteem-destroying images, all in the name of the corporate bottom line.
Haugen’s testimony offered a rare inside glimpse into a company that has risen to the pinnacle of technological dominance in our society and yet functions in carefully guarded mystery. Facebook has emerged as a dominant social platform that touches hundreds of millions of lives, and this reach also impacts governments and businesses.
In her testimony, Haugen said Facebook has prioritized market and financial growth over safeguarding its platform from misinformation or damaging material that could be detrimental to its users on many levels.
“The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat,” Haugen said. “In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.”
The implications of its handling of political information/misinformation/disinformation have been chronicled and remain an ongoing issue. These represent threats to the stability of our own democracy, despite efforts by Facebook during the last election to remove political advertising from the platform. Nevertheless, the political wars go on and will magnify divisions here and elsewhere.
Perhaps even more disturbing, however, are the social implications of the Facebook empire’s efforts to lure younger users to its realm. Haugen leaked internal Facebook studies that presented grim findings:
• According to NPR, one study found that 13.5% of girls in Great Britain said their thoughts of suicide increased when they looked at Instagram;
• The Wall Street Journal reported that a study showed that 32% of girls who felt bad about their bodies felt even worse after using Instagram;
• Also, a study concluded that 17% of girls with eating disorders, such as anorexia, got worse while using Instagram.
Thus, Facebook/Instagram’s own research showed it to be a sort of damaging technological predator, playing on the worst, most destructive fears of its clientele to feed its coffers. Haugen called the effect the apps had on female users “toxic.”
“… I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen told senators. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
We are in very different age in which the Internet and social media have broken down our culture into smaller, fragmented segments. While these platforms have the potential to create a sense of community, they seem to thrive in pulling people apart and feeding off our worries, fears and insecurities.
And up until now, we have willingly let them.
What Congress ultimately does about this is unknown, but it may not even matter. As long as we are willing to be sucked into this abyss, the problem will always remain.
But congressional action would be a good first step and a way to send a message. It must be heeded by everyone — the corporate giants and the users alike. Social media can be a destructive minefield unless we step ahead very carefully.