There’s a line in my previous column that mentioned social media, how what users share online doesn’t reveal the full story of their lives. I want to elaborate on it in light of a recent article by The Wall Street Journal (September 14) that discussed the negative effects of Instagram on the mental health of teenaged girls. The article also exposed that Facebook, which owns Instagram, was aware of this correlation, having conducted its own research but purposely buried the results. Little did they know that their full story was about to be told.
On October 3, a Facebook whistleblower appeared on 60 Minutes and reiterated those accusations… along with others. They had worked with the platform’s civic integrity team in the lead up to the 2020 US election and saw first-hand how little effort was made to stop the dissemination of political propaganda. Worse yet, they asserted that the platform’s programming encouraged it. Furthermore, since the team was disbanded following the election, there was no oversight into how the platform was used to organise the January 6th siege of the Capitol, a role that Facebook has since tried to minimise.
This was what caused the whistleblower to part ways with the company and to go public, with a trove of company files with which to back up her claims. In an appearance before a congressional committee on October 5, the former employee stated that Facebook’s products, “…harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.” However, while admitting that the company doesn’t act with malicious intent, they did propose that it does prioritise “profits before people”.
This isn’t the first time such accusations have been levelled against Facebook. One of the main criticisms is its lack of “regulation” on what users can post. While concreted efforts are made to censor hate and discriminatory speech, its criteria for distinguishing between news, opinions, the misrepresentation of facts, and conspiracy theories, is rather vague, if not arbitrary. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in an appearance before Congress in 2018, refuted these criticisms. He described Facebook as a forum that promotes the free exchange of information and ideas; its purpose is not to restrict “free speech”.
These revelations come at a low point for the company given the backdrop of current events. There were already long-standing concerns regarding privacy issues – how users’ personal information could be accessed and abused for commercial and nefarious purposes (we’ll come back to this). But the hostile social discourse being facilitated by Facebook’s proliferation of the 2020 election lie and the paranoia about the COVID-19 vaccine, has defaced the company’s self-styled image of being a benign entity.
It raises two questions. Do social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram do more harm than good – both to the user and to the wider society? And is it their responsibility to take steps to improve and safeguard the experience?
The debates surrounding these questions aren’t restricted to the halls of Facebook’s offices or the floor of the US Congress. At the risk of stating the obvious – the platform’s global membership makes it a global issue. So individual countries, as well as individual users, have a stake in it.
Even T&T managed to find itself centre stage in this ongoing debate with the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. In case you need reminding, this was a British political consulting firm whose app granted them unauthorised access to the personal data of millions of Facebook users. This information was used to appeal/influence targeted voters during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election. According to a whistleblower from that company, the data-mining techniques were first used in Trinidad in the lead up to our 2015 elections.
Beyond that, we’ve seen how Facebook is the preferred medium for political hacks affiliated with the PNM and UNC to incite their supporters. Such division has also underpinned the COVID-19 vaccine, with the vaccinated and unvaccinated browbeating each other in longwinded message threads. And, of course, Instagram hosts a sizable community of local influencers. Some post travel experiences, others advertise their wares. But many young ladies also share personal photos; wearing stylish attire or in provocative bum-accentuating poses. And it’s all for the adulation of their fans whose approvals come in the form of flattering comments and “likes”.
Do Facebook and its associated platforms turn a blind eye to what goes on? And do they do this because, as the whistleblower suggests, it prioritises profits before people? Both answers are probably yes. But we shouldn’t be surprised. These platforms provide a free service to the user(s). At the same time, the users, specifically their personal information, is the product that Facebook sells to other businesses interests.
The users know this; and Facebook knows the users know this. And while most complain, few ever stop using it. As odious as their practices may be, Facebook doesn’t force anyone to sign up, log on, post, share, argue, or pose in backside-bearing photos. Users do that of their own free will; we give those platforms power over our digital lives. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, once said the company’s goal was to keep its users logged on indefinitely. And therein lies the solution, we can do the exact opposite – log off.