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Opinion: Facebook Deserves Whistleblower’s Testimony

Pressure on Facebook and its affiliated platforms got cranked up to 11 this week after whistleblower Frances Haugen told both 60 Minutes and a Senate subcommittee that Facebook knows some of its effects are dangerous.

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(TNS) — Whether you’re digitally cobbling together plans for a high school reunion, laying the groundwork for an armed assault on the world’s oldest democracy, or just dabbling in genocide, Facebook is apparently the place for you.

Whether you’re posting destination photos that spread a thick layer of envy on friends with far less disposable income, shaming teenagers toward severe depression, or just helping Vladimir Putin rip away the social fabric of pluralistic Western civilization, again ... Facebook.

As you probably know, the pressure on Facebook and its affiliated social media platforms, Instagram in particular, got cranked up to 11 this week after whistleblower Frances Haugen told both “60 Minutes” and a Senate subcommittee that Facebook knows full well what a monster it has become and could not care less.

Worse for Facebook, this phone call is coming from inside the house: Ms. Haugen is a former Facebook product manager and member of its civic misinformation team.

“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site; they’ll click on less ads and they’ll make less money,” Ms. Haugen told CBS’s Scott Pelley on Sunday night. “Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

And ...

“I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from becoming dangerous.”

Well, as they say over in mixed metaphors, that train has flown, and Facebook would hardly be the first American capitalist behemoth to put its own profits ahead of worker safety, consumer safety, public safety, environmental safety, etc. Similarly, after Ms. Haugen dropped a digit-ton of Facebook’s own research into these pathologies in the lap of the Wall Street Journal, triggering that outlet’s scathing “The Facebook Files” series, Facebook shot back in the grand corporate tradition of spin-doctoring by executives all the way up to (but conspicuously not including) Mark Zuckerberg.

Mr. Zuckerberg, lest anyone forget, is the unlikely CEO of a near $1 trillion company that started in his dorm room as an online forum for his sophomoric snark about Harvard co-eds.

Only in America.

Thus Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing began with Sen. Richard Blumenthal tearing into Mr. Zuckerberg in advance of Ms. Haugen’s testimony.

“Facebook saw teens creating accounts that are often hidden from their parents,” Mr. Blumenthal said, “as unique value proposition — their words — as a unique value proposition, a way to drive up numbers for advertisers and shareholders at the expense of safety. It doubled down on targeting children, pushing products on preteens that it knows are harmful to our kids’ mental health and well-being.

“Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment, a moment of reckoning. I remember very very well the moment ... when we learned of those files that showed not only that Big Tobacco knew that its product caused cancer, but that they’d done the research and concealed the files, and now we knew and the world knew. Facebook knew that its products can be addictive and toxic to children. They valued their profit more than the pain they caused to children and their families.

“The damage to self-image and self-worth inflicted by Facebook today will haunt a generation. Teens today, looking at themselves in the mirror, feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror today, and yet rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing. His new modus operandi: no apologies, no admission, no action, nothing to see here.”

The Facebook damage spin is so weak it has relied in large part on the tired response that its own research is being “taken out of context,” one of the Big Three of historical nondenial denials: Misquoted, Quoted (or taken) out of Context, Blown out of Proportion.

Much as Ms. Haugen strained to preface her testimony in the direction of social media’s potential for the greater good, she knew she had the goods on Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg, and she didn’t disappoint.

“I have worked as a product manager at large tech companies since 2006, including Google, Pinterest, Yelp and Facebook,” the Harvard MBA told the committee. “My job has largely focused on algorithmic products like Google Plus Search and recommendation systems like the one that powers the Facebook news feed. Having worked on four different types of social networks, I understand how complex and nuanced these problems are. However, the choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy and for our democracy.

“During my time at Facebook, first working as the lead product manager for civic misinformation and later on counterespionage, I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved these conflicts in favor of its own profits.

“The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people. This is not simply a matter of certain social media users being angry or unstable, or about one side being radicalized against the other. It’s about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs.”

Facebook has weathered such public relations disasters before, paying huge fines, albeit fines that amounted to trimming a few whiskers off its gargantuan financial profile. Maybe this time, with the full exposure of teenagers driven to suicide by pernicious algorithms that have drawn bipartisan scorn in Congress, the outcome will be different.

But for now, hold your tickets. Unless someone finally gets perp walked for this stuff, social media execs will likely keep sailing.

© 2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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