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‘System Is Blinking Red’: Experts Condemn Facebook’s Profit-Seeking Algorithms



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“How many more insurrections have to happen before we hold Facebook to account?” one group asked after whistleblower Frances Haugen said the corporation is unwilling to confront hate speech and disinformation.

Following whistleblower Frances Haugen’s Sunday night allegation that Facebook’s refusal to combat dangerous lies and hateful content on its platforms is driven by profit, social media experts denounced the corporation for embracing a business model that encourages violence and endangers democracy—and urged the federal government to take action.

Haugen, who copied a “trove of private Facebook research” before she resigned from the social media company in May, told CBS‘s Scott Pelley during a “60 Minutes” interview that the tech giant took some steps to limit misinformation ahead of the 2020 election because it understood that then-President Donald Trump’s incessant lies about voter fraud posed a serious threat. Many of the safety measures that Facebook implemented, however, were temporary, she added.

“As soon as the election was over,” Haugen said, “they turned them back off or they changed the settings back to what they were before to prioritize growth over safety. And that really feels like a betrayal of democracy to me.”

Facebook officials claim that some of the anti-misinformation systems remained in place, but in the interregnum between Election Day and President Joe Biden’s inauguration, far-right extremists used the social networking site to organize the deadly January 6 coup attempt—something acknowledged by an internal task force’s report on Facebook’s failure to neutralize “Stop the Steal” activity on its platforms.

There is, according to Haugen, a simple explanation for why executives at the company refuse to do more to mitigate harmful social media behavior: “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, they’ll make less money,” she said.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen told Pelley. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

Haugen—who first revealed her identity on Sunday after having secretly shared internal documents with federal regulators, reported on in the Wall Street Journal‘s series, “The Facebook Files”—also said the corporation is lying to the public about how effective it is at curbing hate speech and disinformation, arguing that “Facebook has demonstrated it cannot operate independently.”

In the wake of Haugen’s bombshell interview, social media experts condemned Facebook for prioritizing “profits above all else.”

“Facebook runs on a hate-and-lie-for-profit business model that amplifies all sorts of toxicity on its platforms,” Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press, said Monday in a statement. “Thanks to this brave whistleblower, we now have further proof that Facebook’s executives—all the way up to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg—routinely chose profits over public safety.”

González, co-founder of Ya Basta Facebook and the Change the Terms coalition, added that Facebook executives “designed the company’s algorithms to put engagement, growth, and profits above all else, even allowing lies about the 2020 election results to spread to millions in advance of the white-nationalist assault on the U.S. Capitol.”

Longtime critics of Facebook argued that the “new revelations” about the company demand immediate federal intervention.

“How many more insurrections have to happen before we hold Facebook to account?” the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a coalition of civil rights leaders and academics, asked in a statement released after Haugen’s interview aired. “The system is blinking red, and without real, meaningful, independent, and robust oversight and investigation of Facebook, more lives will be lost.”

“The goal,” added the group, “is no longer to save Facebook—Facebook is beyond hope. The goal now is to save democracy.”

Free Press summarized the Journal‘s key findings on Facebook, which we now know stem from internal documents provided by Haugen:

Facebook exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules; Instagram is harmful to millions of young users; Facebook’s 2018 algorithm change promotes objectionable or harmful content; Facebook’s tools were used to sow doubt about Covid-19 vaccines; and globally, Facebook is used to incite violence against ethnic minorities and facilitat[e] action against political dissent. 

Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, praised Haugen for exposing Facebook’s “amplification and use of hate to keep users on the platform engaged.”

Facebook has “weaponized… data in harmful ways against users,” Mitchell continued, and failed to consider the negative effects of “hate-filled rhetoric” even after the Myanmar military used Facebook to launch a genocide in 2018.

González argued that Haugen “turned evidence of this gross negligence over to the government at great personal risk, and now we need the government to respond with decisive action to hold the company responsible for protecting public safety.”

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“The government must demand full transparency on how Facebook collects, processes, and shares our data, and enact civil rights and privacy policies to protect the public from Facebook’s toxic business model,” said González.

“Facebook must also act swiftly to remedy the harms it is continuing to inflict on the public at large,” she added. “It must end special protections for powerful politicians, ban white supremacists and dangerous conspiracy theorists, and institute wholesale changes to strengthen content moderation in English and other languages—and we need this all now.”

According to Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist at The Guardian and co-founder of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, “Facebook is a rogue state, lying to regulators, investors, and its own oversight board.”

“What we are seeing today is a market failure with profound, devastating global consequences,” she said. “Executives and board members must be held to account. There is evidence to suggest that their behavior was not just immoral but also criminal.”

Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalismargued that “even as we feel outrage toward Mr. Zuckerberg and his corporation, the cause of this crisis is not a single company, not even one as powerful as Facebook.”

“The cause is the economic institution of surveillance capitalism,” said Zuboff. “The economic logic of these systems, the data operations that feed them, and the markets that support them are not limited to Facebook.”

“The imperatives of surveillance economics determine the engineering of these operations—their products, objectives, and financial incentives—along with those of the other tech empires, their extensive ecosystems, and thousands of companies in diverse sectors far from Silicon Valley,” she continued. “The damage already done is intolerable. The damage that most certainly lies ahead is unthinkable.”

Zuboff added that the only “durable solution to this crisis” is to “undertake the work of interrupting and outlawing the dangerous operations of surveillance capitalism and its predictable social harms that assault human autonomy, splinter society, and undermine democracy.”

Haugen is scheduled to testify on Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing on “Protecting Kids Online.”

Originally published on Common Dreams by KENNY STANCIL and republished under a Creative Commons license  (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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