Editor's Notes

Did you watch the “60 Minutes” interview with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last Sunday night?

I did and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since.

As you’ve probably known, Haugen, a former product manager for the company, using her experience and myriad documents she copied before quitting, spoke of how Facebook knows its platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp, spread hate and misinformation and target young people. She said the documents show the company allows that to happen for the sake of massive profits.

The compelling, though disappointingly short interview, preceded Haugen’s testimony before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection on Tuesday and followed an earlier series of stories based largely on those documents last month in the Wall Street Journal.

My two main conclusions from what Haugen said in the interview and during her testimony are:

1. The negative impact that Facebook’s own research shows its multiple social media platforms can and do have on young people and our democracy is difficult to deny — even though Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave it quite a try after Tuesday’s testimony.

2. Our nation’s laws need to start catching up with our technology.

Haugen walked in the door with credibility, having worked not only at Facebook, but at Google, Yelp and Pinterest as well.

She gave the committee and anyone watching/listening a clear insider’s perspective on Facebook’s processes without getting sidetracked by the technological jargon industry professionals sometimes allow to get in the way.

She spoke about Facebook’s decision to change its individual news feed algorithms away from news content and toward posts from family and Facebook friends — the latter, of which I would add, is not to be confused in many cases with actual friends.

The January 2018 change, even if you are willing to consider it well-intended, instead produced a toxic environment with less legitimate news and lots of often-disturbing misinformation. But it also got more user interaction, which means more eyeballs on ads and more money for Facebook.

Of all the things Haugen has spoken about, the worst, in my view, is her contention that Facebook targets teens for the sake of its bottom line. She sited how Instagram’s photo-sharing site contributes to many young people, especially young girls, feeling awful about their own self-images.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” Haugen said. It wasn’t hard to believe, especially not with a thousand pages or so of documents to back it up.

Listening to the questioning from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday, it was actually possible to think Democrats and Republicans might be willing to come together to address some of these concerns.

But of course, it was easier to imagine nothing at all coming from this, unless enough of their constituents make it clear they think this is a big deal.

Facebook said in a statement after the testimony that “It’s time to create standard rules for the internet. Instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it’s time for Congress to act.”

Although it’s hard to believe any company really wanting government intervention in its industry, I do think our lawmakers should act. But any action should be thoughtful and nuanced, not some heavy-handed legislation aimed at addressing all of the issues at once and it can’t forget the importance of free expression.

We need to strengthen internet privacy laws. And we need stronger online protections for children.

Let’s start there.

Email comments to dlyons@dailyitem.com.


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