How Do We Fix Facebook?

Published: October 19, 2021

By Jim Lichtman
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Facebook is optimizing “content that gets engagement, a reaction, but its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing, it’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions.”

Haugen, a former data scientist who worked for Facebook, came forward with thousands of documents that show how the giant social media platform engages users with content that promotes negative emotions.

“Haugen was recruited by Facebook in 2019,” 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley describes. “She says she agreed to take the job only if she could work against misinformation because she had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.”

As a result, Facebook created a division called Civic Integrity whose purpose was to steer users away from hateful and divisive content in the run-up to the 2020 election. After the election, however, Haugen said that the company told her, “‘We’re dissolving Civic Integrity.’ Like, they said, ‘Oh good, we made it through the election. There [weren’t] riots. We can get rid of Civic Integrity now.’ Fast forward a couple of months, we got the insurrection. And when they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I was like, ‘I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.’”

That’s the short version of a very complicated problem.

Social media is an all-encompassing term for digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where friends, family, and others share social information about their lives. In the last decade, Facebook became an effective way of delivering  news of the day in countries around the world, eventually becoming an incredible organizational tool for people living in authoritarian countries.

That’s a good thing. However, it quickly morphed into a major pipeline of mis, and disinformation as well as conspiracy theories.

Now, however, thanks in part to social media, we are so overwhelmed with content that it’s virtually impossible for many to check the veracity of all the information they receive. Many believe that content passed from a friend or family member is true without taking the time to check, and the more misinformation they believe, the more likely they are to distrust reliable sources. As a result, local or national newspapers that employ editors and fact-checkers are left in the dust due to the proliferation of misinformation because today more than ever before, many Americans simply don’t trust mainstream media.

At a time when Americans are looking for responsible, trustworthy information about the coronavirus pandemic, the presidential election, and other such events, the public remains largely distrustful of the mass media. Four in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9%) or “a fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” while six in 10 have “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%). The poll was taken in September 2020 by the Gallup organization.

In my October 8 commentary, I compared whistleblower Haugen to Jeffrey Wigand who came forward to describe how tobacco companies knowingly manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes to “hook” new customers and retain others. He exposed the lie that was told before Congress by the heads of the 7 tobacco companies who, one by one, stated that nicotine is not addictive.

One could argue that social media is the new nicotine and Wigand’s assessment to 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace might be just as applicable today. Here’s what Wallace and Wigand said in 1996:

“And that’s what cigarettes are for.”

“Most certainly. It’s a delivery device for nicotine.”

“A delivery device for nicotine. Put it in your mouth, light it up, and you’re gonna get your fix?”

“You’ll get your fix.”

Here’s how that conversation might go today:

“And that’s what social media can be used for?”

“Most certainly. It can be a delivery device for misinformation and disinformation.”

“A delivery device for misinformation. Put it in your hands, hit the ‘like’ button, and you’re going to get your fix.”

“You’ll get your fix.”

And just like the manipulation of nicotine in tobacco products, social media manipulates what we see, read, and are drawn to.

However, unlike cigarettes, it’s not just individual users who are at risk, as the January 6 attack on the Capitol building in Washington has shown. When users of social media connect, they have the ability to create a powerful force beyond what anyone could have expected.

“Facebook will not fix itself,” Roger McNamee writes in Time magazine.

Five years ago, McNamee worked with Facebook to help change its business model and algorithms. But kicking the can down the road for five years created a scenario few would have predicted, and now, we can’t algorithm our way out of it.

McNamee urged “Facebook and Silicon Valley to adopt human-driven technology over addictive algorithms. Nothing happened. . . All incentives direct the company to stay on its current course.”

“Haugen,” McNamee writes, expressed empathy for Zuckerberg, but did not hesitate to note the moral failing of a CEO who prioritizes profits over the public good.”

As McNamee points out in a story for Time, “the US economy operates according to the dictates of what Harvard University’s Shoshana Zuboff calls, ‘surveillance capitalism.’ Everything we do on a smartphone, every financial transaction, every trip, every prescription, and medical test is tracked, and most of it is available for purchase in a data marketplace.”

Thousands of Facebook files that Haugen used to substantiate her claims expose a very real threat. “Personal autonomy and democracy are under assault from surveillance capitalism,” McNamee says.

How can we overcome the challenges of platforms like Facebook that can manipulate what we see and may believe? And what about the next generation Facebook and the next?  How can we respect freedom of speech and maintain some kind of system that can place a check on hate speech and false information?

More on Friday.


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