New York (CNN Business) – After 24 hours of madness for Facebook, in which a whistleblower brought convictions against the site, its shares fell 5% and the company suffered a interruption of more than five hours In its most popular apps, the spotlight has shifted to Congress and what lawmakers are willing to do to curb the social media giant.
The result of the complainant’s statements: Facebook not only knows that its platform encourages content that is angry, hateful, and manifestly false, but that it is prioritizing such content to maintain the engagement of its readers. The company is choosing “profit over safety,” according to Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who worked on civic integrity issues.
Now Haugen took his case to Washington, begging lawmakers not to shut down Facebook or force it to disband, but to just take its regulation seriously. The reality is that, in nearly two decades, Congress has shown that it is barely able to pinpoint Facebook where the bathroom is.
“The severity of this crisis demands that we get out of the previous regulatory frameworks,” he said in his opening statement on Tuesday.
The leaders of Facebook, he says, are the only ones who know how to make their platforms more secure, but have “put their astronomical benefits before people.” They will not do the right thing until they are forced to.
It is difficult to overstate the shocking value of Haugen’s testimony and the reams of internal documents that leaked to The Wall Street Journal. It is one thing for external researchers to say that your company is causing harm, but it is quite another for your own internal reports to say that your products are actively harming teens and spreading lies about the covid-19 vaccine that could kill people.
His revelations are important because they force the world to question how Facebook, and other tech giants, are held accountable for their actions.
For its part, Facebook has opposed the information in The Wall Street Journal, calling many of the claims “misleading” and arguing that its applications do more good than harm.
Why Facebook has been spared so far
Public pressure alone will not make Facebook change. If the shame were enough, Facebook would have changed after the 2016 election. Or the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Or the 2020 elections.
Even when dozens of major brands withdrew their advertising over Facebook’s lax regulation of hate speech, the company hardly felt the blow. Its shares have risen 54% since then (while the tech-heavy Nasdaq has risen just over 48% in the same period).
So it’s up to Washington to fix Facebook. And that’s no easy task, even if Congress weren’t bogged down by its own internal squabbles and the looming threat of America’s first default on debt.
Part of the problem with regulating Facebook is that lawmakers and regulators are searching in the dark for a solution to a problem society has never faced. Borrowing from Haugen’s metaphor, it’s as if the Department of Transportation wrote the rules of the road without even knowing that seat belts are an option.
And Facebook’s structure is singularly murky, even among tech companies, according to Haugen.
“At other big tech companies like Google, any independent researcher can download the company’s search results from the Internet and write articles about what they find,” he said. “But Facebook hides behind walls that prevent researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of its system.”
Why this could be a turning point
But let’s put our rose-colored glasses on for a moment.
Haugen’s claims differ from previous Facebook disclosures, in part because he filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing the company of misleading investors. An internal document cited by The Wall Street Journal explained so directly You have to wonder who had the audacity to put it in writing: “We don’t really do what we say we do publicly.”
This is undoubtedly a big mistake for a publicly traded company.
The sheer size of the documents Haugen provided to journalists and members of Congress – thousands of pages, some of them privileged, according to The Wall Street Journal – also make his case unique.
Those documents offer some of the strongest evidence that Facebook is responsible for real and tangible harm, such as worsening body image issues among teens on Instagram, allowing misinformation to flourish and allowing celebrities or other public figures to get involved. they flout Facebook’s content regulations, according to the newspaper.
It is something like an Erin Brockovich moment: the big company knows that it is poisoning the water, but it turns a blind eye. The question now is: Will Congress do something about it?