This week will be a long, difficult one for Facebook. Yesterday whistleblower Frances Haugen answered questions about its business practices before MPs in a parliamentary hearing, which comes after another whistleblower revealed further issues to American authorities about the company. Haugen’s testimony has clearly rattled Facebook, prompting pushback from the company, including direct attacks from an outspoken PR executive.
Haugen’s comments at hearings here and in the US, and the documents revealed in the last week by whistleblowers, have painted the platform in a less than favourable light. Haugen’s testimony isn’t news to those who have monitored independent research into Facebook, but it becomes all the more shocking when it’s there in black and white, based on the company’s own research, and in its own words.
Haugen told the Observer that the Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is “unaccountable”, “has no oversight” and “has not demonstrated that he is willing to govern the company at the level that is necessary for public safety”. In front of politicians yesterday, she warned about the risks that Facebook is undermining democracy. “I came forward now because now is a critical time to act,” she said. She also warned that “anger and hate is the easiest way to grow on Facebook”, while she said Instagram is nearly impossible to make safe for teenagers, let alone 10-year-olds.
Among the claims she made are that internal tests conducted by Facebook show conservative accounts being channelled down an extremist rabbit hole. The site was also a haven for the conspiratorially minded, who believed that the last year’s US presidential election was “stolen” – without evidence. At one point, one in 10 views of all political content in the US, and one in every 50 views on Facebook, alleged election fraud. It has also allegedly poisoned the well around discourse in India, struggling to contain hate speech, misinformation and celebrations of violence. The reason, reports claim, is that Facebook expanded into the country without understanding its culture.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs, has said in a memo to Facebook staff that these are all understandable results from the social media revolution, that “turns traditional top-down control of information on its head”. People’s ability to decide for themselves what to read, see and digest is empowering, Clegg claims. However, it’s “disruptive to those who hanker after the top-down controls of the past”.
Facebook also claims that it’s madness to say that it’s willing to put profit before people: without the latter, it can’t make the former, and if Facebook was as pernicious a platform as the whistleblowers and politicians allege, then it wouldn’t be a sustainable business.
Plenty disagree. The reckoning Facebook now faces is the result of a typical tech problem: that companies prioritised growth at all costs, without thinking about the ramifications it would have on society. It’s something I’ve seen in my work on other platforms, including YouTube: in their early days, platforms that have become our de facto public forums didn’t grapple with the difficulties of moderating public discourse.
Now it is too late – and we are seeing the inevitable result of decades of under-regulation, or no oversight at all on big tech. The challenge for Facebook is that, after years of trying to ignore the problem, politicians and the public alike no longer believe it when it professes to be part of the solution. What is happening now is that regulation is beginning to be forced on the company, rather than arrived at through consensual engagement.
Hence the swift attempts to bring in regulation via the government’s online safety bill; the joint committee’s scrutiny of its contents was the ostensible reason for Haugen’s appearance yesterday. The bill has been given greater urgency by the killing of Sir David Amess earlier this month. This despite the fact that there has been no suggestion that the MP’s death had anything to do with social media.
What we’re likely to see now is reactionary regulation, drawn up by those who believe the worst of Facebook, and can’t conceive of the best of it. Politicians, fed up with being thrown to the lions of the social media commentariat on a regular basis, have decided they want to hit the company hard. Much of the public, roiled by the algorithms that run wild and push our buttons, are baying for blood too. And both are being guided by former employees who, whether because of genuine concern about what they saw or because they have an axe to grind with their former bosses, want to cut big tech down to size.
It’s hard to feel pity for a platform that has been complicit in all this. Regulation is needed, as Haugen’s testimony showed. If even half her claims are true, they demonstrate the problems we face when living in a world drawn up by Silicon Valley billionaires who see dollar signs from our data, and view people as profit.
The probable remedy, however, isn’t a perfect fix. After years of no regulation whatsoever, an overcorrection now seems likely, with regulation being drawn up from a position of anger, rather than rational thought.
Radical transparency has already been mooted as the necessary next step by Damian Collins, chair of the online safety bill joint committee. That would be an important intervention – though it’s one that Facebook seems not to favour, given its attempts to quell Haugen and other whistleblowers’ attempts to foist transparency on them.
It is necessary, though, because social media platforms have shown themselves so far to be incapable of marking their own homework. They are not willing to responsibly disclose the impact their platforms have on all of us. Facebook’s recent difficulty is just the start. The big tech backlash is entering a new era.