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Facebook whistleblower’s revelations point to a contradiction between social media’s business model and public good

The contradiction between the technology and profitability of social media, and public good can be addressed, to some degree, by robust regulatory mechanisms. In the longer run, however, the technology behind the apps will need an ethical upgrade.

As the whistleblower has pointed out, the issue is not one of malice on the part of Facebook's leadership.

No one at Facebook is malevolent, but the incentives are misaligned.” Frances Haugen — the Facebook whistleblower who provided documents to The Wall Street Journal as well as US government agencies about the degree to which the social media giant is aware of, and consciously exploits, the harm its applications cause — hasn’t revealed anything that most people aren’t already aware of. But her interview to 60 Minutes underlines the challenge: There appears to be a fundamental contradiction between how social media is designed and the public good.

The documents leaked by Haugen, and her recent interview, indicate that Facebook’s much-touted “safeguards” against hate speech, incitement to violence as well as content harmful to the mental well-being of young people are, at best, window dressing. For example, under political pressure, the company tweaked its algorithm and gave lower priority to polarising political content ahead of the 2020 US presidential election. But, as soon as the polls were over, it removed these safeguards, an action Haugen believes was at least partially responsible for the riots at the Capitol in Washington on January 6. The company also seems aware of the role it has played in inciting ethnic violence in certain parts of the world. There are documents detailing how Instagram, one of its most prolific products, increases notions of shame around the body and depression among teenage girls. But, according to Haugen, since teenagers suffering from these issues tend to fall deeper into social media, little is done to address them.

As the whistleblower has pointed out, the issue is not one of malice on the part of Facebook’s leadership. AI-based algorithms are designed, in essence, to keep people on the site/app as long as possible, and it is this time and the data so collected that is eventually monetised. The fact is that content that elicits an emotional response — outrage and anger is usually the path of least resistance in this regard — “engages” people more. For all its talk of connecting people and building communities, the company appears to be agnostic when it comes to content and social impact. According to Haugen, in every conflict between profit and the public good, her erstwhile employers chose the former. The contradiction between the technology and profitability of social media, and public good can be addressed, to some degree, by robust regulatory mechanisms. In the longer run, however, the technology behind the apps will need an ethical upgrade.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 5, 2021 under the title ‘An ethical upgrade’.

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First published on: 05-10-2021 at 03:53 IST
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