In Focus

Facebook: is this its Big Tobacco moment?

Facebook knows its products are destructive, but it does not appear to be doing everything it can to fix them

“It’s been quite a week,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg. And that was an understatement, said the FT. Last Monday, Facebook suffered one of its worst-ever outages. The next day, a former employee at its “civic integrity unit” delivered explosive testimony to Congress about the ways in which it puts profits before the safety of its users. Frances Haugen had already leaked a trove of internal documents to the press, so much of what she said was familiar, said Aaron Mak on Slate. Even so, senators were clearly shaken by her claim that Facebook’s own research had concluded that its Instagram app was harmful to vulnerable teenagers. This enabled her to drive home her wider point, that Facebook’s financial incentives are at odds with its users’ well-being. The longer people linger on the platform, the more money it can make from advertising, she explained. So its algorithms are designed to promote the content that leads to the most engagement, based on likes, comments and shares. And this, she said, is the content that generates strong reactions – like anger, and fear. 

A damning picture is coming into focus, said Ahmed Baba in The Independent: Facebook knows its products are destructive, but it is not doing everything it can to fix them. For instance, it claims to be working hard to combat hate speech, but Haugen produced a memo in which executives acknowledged that action is only taken against hate in 3% to 5% of cases. Similarly, it boasts about taking disinformation seriously, but 87% of the money it spends fighting it is directed at content in English – which represents only 9% of the total. It is making little effort to stop “fake news” being spread in Sudan, say, or Myanmar. 

At the hearing last week, a senator warned that Big Tech is facing its Big Tobacco moment, said The Economist. But investors are still buying Facebook stock – and while politicians talk about reining it in and breaking it up, it’s not clear how this could be done: with TikTok out there, it’s hard to argue that it’s a monopoly. Still, the reputational damage is “getting out of hand” – and there’s more: Haugen says that Facebook has been so abandoned by the young, its user base in the US could shrink 45% within two years – which would deal a major blow to its advertising revenues. Facebook is in trouble, said Kevin Roose in The New York Times. That is why it has been discussing shocking ideas to attract pre-teens, such as a social media app for “playdates”. Facebook is still powerful; and it still needs regulating. But we shouldn’t mistake its “desperate flailing for a show of strength”.

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