OPED-FACEBOOK-COMMENTARY-ABA

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies to Congress on Oct. 5.

Once again, Facebook is under congressional hellfire for its business operations in the digital sphere —this time due to a damning investigation by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) based on documents provided by a whistleblower. The series — “Facebook Files” — and the whistleblower Frances Haugen have taken social media by storm, especially following Haugen’s “60 Minutes” interview Oct. 3 and congressional testimony Oct. 5. The documents revealed a plethora of shortcomings in Facebook’s internal operations and have introduced a discussion about the effects of social media on society. 

While these revelations may not seem like anything new, the renewed attention and new evidence give both governmental entities and the industry itself an opportunity to publicly correct its course and create a safer, more socially positive digital space.

During her “60 Minutes” segment, Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s Civic Integrity Team, accused the company of prioritizing profit over user safety. Reuters reports that the documents were presented at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing in hopes of gaining congressional support to create new standards for the proper management and uses of social media. In these documents, Haugen highlighted a few important flaws of Facebook’s system. 

One major issue mentioned was the lack of effort put toward combating the harms of sex and human trafficking across the app, especially outside of the U.S. BBC reported that 90% of Facebook’s audience lives outside the U.S., but the platform’s team for dissolving misinformation throughout the app only interacted with 13% of data from other countries. Another major finding that BBC reports is Instagram’s knowledge of the damaging mental effects its platform has on teenage girls. The company researched the app’s effects on mental health, finding 32% of teenage girls said the app makes them feel insecure about their appearance, then subsequently hid this data.

The documents presented by the WSJ and Haugen highlight a myriad of issues within Facebook’s applications. The Guardian recorded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s response to the accusations: “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content.”

In spite of the serious threat these accusations pose for Facebook, Haugen said in her interview that she didn’t aim to denounce the company by leaking this information but, rather, she aims to create a safer user experience.

This leak presents an opportunity for Congress and other social media platforms to reassess how they approach user safety and data breaches. If Congress becomes involved, policy could be passed that would limit the amount of power, profit and advertising social media companies could extend over users and internet content. This would allow new companies to form and get more exposure while also reducing the influence large companies’ decisions have on the rest of the market. 

Another important area that this leak could benefit is mental health, especially in younger generations. The leak highlighted data that found the negative impacts of social media posts on young people’s identity and perception of themselves. Creating new limitations on what can be posted, adding potential trigger warnings to posts and formulating innovative ways to make users feel more comfortable with their online presence could transform the world of social media while putting users’ mental health first.

Junior Grace Calogero says “I’ve often gone on social media and felt lesser than others because of photoshopped images and unrealistic expectations. I would love it if social media could be a space to express ourselves authentically and comfortably instead of feeling like a competition.”

The exposure of this misguided method of monitoring social media posts, users and data presents a great opportunity for media giants and government agencies. These entities can create positive changes that will help future generations find a safe and fun online environment to express themselves.

Liz Riccio is a junior media arts and design and psychology double major. Contact Liz at riccioem@dukes.jmu.edu.