The year 2021 did not go well for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg in particular. One PR disaster followed another. It is gradually starting to appear that Zuckerberg's club is gradually losing control of its own future.
It all started in the month of September. The Wall Street Journal published a series of highly critical articles about the platform. The gist of the articles was that Facebook knowingly puts profit maximization above the public interest. The newspaper, therefore, states that the platform obscures. This concerns all matters that can harm the users.
Facebook responded to the articles as it always responds to outside attacks. It is said that the presented facts have been taken out of context, that the research is misinterpreted and that social media and Facebook, in particular, are doing a lot of good work.
Usually, this defense is enough to calm the tumult after a while and then go back to business as usual. But this time Zuckerberg et al. had miscalculated. Suddenly Frances Haugen announced that she was the whistleblower who had passed the documents to the paper. She added that she had also forwarded those documents to the European Parliament and the British Parliament. All these documents could conclusively show that Instagram, for example, was very harmful to teenagers and that Facebook knew that very well. Haugen also claimed that Facebook programs its algorithms in such a way that they encourage extremism and provoke conflict.
Haugen then stated that Facebook is doing everything it can to keep informants out in order to prevent the spread of information. It is Facebook's policy approach to present a false contradiction to the outside world. The problems that someone like Haugen outlines cannot in fact be solved. Yes, there is a solution and that implies that free speech must be curbed. Violent and/or extreme reactions are part of these times, according to the PR of the company.
In her testimony before the United States Senate, Frances Haugen made short shrift of this statement and defense. She states that the algorithms are programmed in such a way that 'content' continues to circulate on the platform for as long as possible. That means more attention and therefore more advertisements and therefore more revenue. Haugen adds something else. At Facebook, based on their own research and findings, they know that extreme content generates the most attention. And so the platform is set up in such a way that it rewards these types of messages with 'likes' and comments. This gives the messenger a kick, with the result that he or she places even more extreme messages on the platform. The result is a tasteless downward spiral at best.
Of course, everyone at Facebook denied this evil intent. But alas, as early as 2020, an internal Facebook presentation from 2018 had come into the possession of the Wall Street Journal. One of the slides states that the algorithms make use of the human brain's sensitivity to contradictions and divisions. The algorithms should reinforce these feelings because that is how the site learns, the more extreme the content, the more attention the user pays to it.
There are other problems with Instagram, a daughter company of Facebook. Facebook internal research has shown that 66% of teenage girls and 40% of boys have negative feelings after visiting this app. For example, they compare their own appearance with celebrities and other influencers. This can lead to damages to mental health, which in the most extreme case can trigger thoughts of suicide. While Instagram makes many teens unhappy, they continue to use the app simply because they are addicted to it.
There's one more thing. A growing group of teenagers open a second Instagram account unbeknownst to their parents. This seems to be an undesirable development in view of the danger of addiction. For Facebook, it is a unique proposition for further growth in the number of active users and thus in advertising revenue. Facebook even has an official abbreviation for this phenomenon. SUMA stands for same user with multiple accounts!
How will things go with Facebook now? What does its future look like? It is certainly true that the image of the platform has suffered serious dents. Frances Haugen is not the only ex-employee who has opened up about the secret doings of Zuckerberg. Names such as Yael Eisenstat and Sophie Zhang preceded her.
All these testimonials have partly resulted in the call to take action against Social Media. More and more people are talking about splitting up Facebook, for example, in order to break its power. Encouragingly, politicians on both sides of the ocean seem to be awakening from their blissful slumber. Plans and legislation to curb the power of the major social media have been discussed in the European Parliament for some time and the British Parliament is working on new online-safety legislation. In any case, it is the beginning.
The weakest, in this case, is the US legislature. During Frances Haugen's interrogations, Senator Amy Klobuchar acknowledged that the United States is woefully behind when it comes to privacy legislation. They have not been adjusted in a long time and that makes it very difficult to act decisively. Effective industry lobbying has so far prevented Congress from fulfilling its legislative role. On the other hand, the idea of curbing and if necessary breaking up social media and therefore Facebook is increasingly resonating with both Democrats and Republicans. The fact that both parties can find each other on a certain subject is almost a miracle today. Facebook is far from over, but it's no longer automatically calling the shots!
Mark Zuckerberg leveraged Facebook user data to fight rivals and help friends, leaked documents show. April 16, 2019.
Sue Halpern, The Facebook whistle-blower’s testimony and the tech giant’s very bad week. The New Yorker, October 7, 2021