Did your scrolling finger itch unbearably when Facebook and Instagram went down on Monday? Did you feel a twitch, a pang, a sense of unease when your favourite habit was unavailable, even just for a few hours?
I’m going to bet most of us did, to one degree or another. Suddenly, we all understood the smoker’s need for a fix, for the quick hit to the brain’s pleasure centre. The analogy works because Facebook has become the global equivalent of a cigarette: once considered an idle pleasure, but now recognized as a toxic substance that causes damage on micro and macro levels, both individual and societal.
Facebook is having the same kind of reckoning that cigarette manufacturers were forced into decades ago, despite their intense lobbying campaigns. “When we realized that Big Tobacco was hiding the harm it caused, the government took action,” Frances Haugen, the latest Facebook whistleblower, said this week as she testified before a U.S. Congressional committee.
Ms. Haugen told the committee that in 2019, she started working at Facebook as lead product manager for civic misinformation, and soon discovered to her horror that most of it was coming from inside the house. She turned on her former employer and shared damning documents with the media about how Facebook allowed users to sow political discord around the world and amplified content that was detrimental to mental health, especially for girls and young women. And like Big Tobacco, the company knew and hid its knowledge. As Ms. Haugen said: “the company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people.”
But will this whistleblower be heard, when all the other alarms about Facebook have been ignored for years? In 2018, the New Yorker was asking if Facebook could be saved “after two years of ceaseless controversy.” We know that the platform was used to drive political misinformation in favour of Donald Trump in 2016 and that its products inflamed ethnic hatred in countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia. We know that its algorithms are racially biased, and that prolonged use increases unhappiness. A recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, outlines how Facebook and other platforms are designed to be addictive to our brains, and how they profit from our collective jonesing for likes, comments and attention.
Yet Facebook has continued to grow because its developers are constantly searching for new ways to increase engagement and reach ever-younger audiences (although it should be said that the only thing less cool to teenagers than Facebook now is seeing their parents dance at a wedding.) Perhaps the platform will become so uncool that it melts into a puddle – but this seems unlikely, since it has more than two billion users, many of whom are too old to worry about what’s hot and what’s not.
So far, the company’s army of lobbyists have managed to shield it from any meaningful government oversight. Equally important, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have maintained their usefulness to users. As Ms. Haugen noted in her testimony, this week’s hours-long outage meant small businesses had more trouble reaching customers, and grandparents couldn’t coo over pictures of new babies.
Okay, so Facebook has more uses than a cigarette, it’s true. But its myriad harms will only be addressed when we look at secretive social media monopolies as a hazard to public health, both to individuals and communities at large. And that’s only going to happen if governments can find some courage in oversight and regulation, which have been lacking until now. We recognized second-hand smoke as a danger to the collective; surely, we can recognize the toxicity of this platform on people who don’t even use it.
Many of Facebook’s critics have called for it to be broken up, including its cofounder Chris Hughes, who wrote: “For too long, lawmakers have marvelled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive.” The argument is that, by buying up major competitors, it has an unfair advantage, especially in the vital area of messaging.
Ms. Haugen wants to see robust independent oversight of the company, as well as Facebook being forced into transparency around its secret-sauce algorithms. Crucially, she wants those algorithms altered so they don’t promote and reward the worst behaviour.
All this uproar might vanish like smoke, as it has in the past. Who knows? Maybe this time people are finally ready to kick the habit.
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