October so far has not been great for Facebook. The latest in the regulatory tussle that the company is embroiled in stems from internal documents and a whistleblower.

A day after the historic outage, Frances Haugen, a former product at Facebook, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee that saw Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp go offline for several hours. 

The whistleblower’s statements on The Wall Street Journal and the Senate Subcommittee hearing points fingers at the Facebook top brass and their inefficiency in dealing with critical issues on the platform. Haugen said that Facebook prioritized profits over the safety of people on the platforms and ignored serious internal research reports that showed that Instagram had a negative impact on the body image of teenage girls. 

These allegations were also followed by another whistleblower testimony, this time in the UK. Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist, appeared before the British parliament to effectively reiterate many existing allegations and focused on political manipulation and using fake pages to instigate violence and political unrest. 

Together, these revelations have put Facebook on the defense, forcing Mark Zuckerberg to make a public statement dispelling the allegations and reiterating Facebook’s work in this respect. Let’s take a look at the claims in detail and what the fallout could be for Facebook and the larger community of social media platforms. 


“Operating In The Shadows”

The expose, which included tens of thousands of internal communication and documents, poses a significant headache for Facebook. A variety of issues are being raised here, and many of them are substantial. 

Instagram Harmful To Teenage Girls

Facebook has been conducting many internal research studies on its user base, especially the younger audience. Currently, Facebook and Instagram allow children as young as 13 to create their accounts on the platform. Teenagers also form a big chunk of users, and for Facebook, these young users are critical. 

The internal studies showed that Instagram created significant body image issues in 32% of teenage girls. Seeing curated images on Instagram creates unrealistic expectations about beauty standards. Teens also pointed to Instagram as a cause of anxiety and depression and triggering suicidal thoughts.

The internal documents also revealed that Instagram tends to worsen social comparison, where you compare yourself to others to realize your worth. It’s also a major cause of mental health issues, especially in teenagers. 

Special Rules For High Profile Users

The documents released also showed how Facebook treated high-profile users differently and gave some of the accounts special privileges while normal users faced action. The ‘XCheck’ Program deals with these VIP or high-profile user accounts and actions taken against them. The Whistleblower documents indicate that the XCheck program has been shielding VIP accounts and whitelisting some of them, essentially giving these accounts free rein. 

Facebook has often found itself in trouble for protecting some users against action, drawing the ire of the public and the regulatory authorities alike. The internal documents showed how internal teams also discussed the perception issues and bad publicity that may arise from enforcing sanctions on VIP profiles.

Algorithm Change That Made The Platform ‘Angrier’

The documents also revealed how Facebook ignored warnings from internal stakeholders to implement an algorithm change which had the opposite effect. The change was described as one that will ‘strengthen bonds between users and to improve their well-being.’ 

The change in the algorithm made it easier to spread viral content and effectively decreased the quality of the feeds for all users. This also had some specific business interests and was made to arrest the decline in user engagement across the platform.

Drugs And Human Trafficking

Another disturbing find that came out of the trove of documents released by the whistleblower talks about how Facebook did not take adequate measures to curb the use of Facebook by drug cartels and for human trafficking. It also shows how Facebook concentrated its efforts on developed and wealthy nations and did not do enough to prevent harm in developing countries.

Facebook was under fire from the activists in Myanmar about its role in inciting communal violence against the Rohingya population. This ultimately led to Facebook apologizing to them for their role in the violence.


The General Theme

In essence, the whistleblower statements and the internal documents point fingers towards a pattern where Facebook doesn’t take any action or takes inadequate steps to address the issue despite being aware of it.

This lack of action has become the common theme amongst most of the allegations recently made. The statements also discuss how Facebook prioritizes profits over such grievous concerns and is not transparent in its approach towards such issues. 

Facebook’s responded to these comments by saying these documents and discussions are being taken out of context, highlighting the steps it has taken to ensure the safety and well-being of its users. In Haugen’s testimony in Congress, she states, “Facebook chooses to mislead and misdirect. Facebook has not earned our blind faith.”


Regulatory Trouble

As a whole, social media is often finding itself on the wrong side of the arguments for a very long time now. In the USA, the 2016 elections set the stage where Facebook was allegedly used by operatives from other countries to polarise the country and create unrest. Facebook has since then been firmly on the crosshairs of the regulators, with Mark Zuckerberg himself being grilled by the Senate along with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai. 

The regulators have been gathering support to amend Section 230, the law that currently absolves media platforms of liability about content on the platform posted by the users or other authors. There is bipartisan support for this notion too. 

It is not just in the US that Facebook is facing such issues. The UK has also been trying to gather evidence and support towards laws that target harmful content on the internet. European Union has also been taking on Facebook over many issues, and harmful content is one of the central issues. Facebook was fined $270 million by the EU in relation to its acquisition of Whatsapp and privacy violations concerning that process. 

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg find themselves in a difficult situation where the road ahead is likely to be quite bumpy. The regulations, if enacted, could mean a slew of suits in the USA and outside. 


What Does This Mean For Social Media In General?

In simple terms, more substantial steps need to be taken by social media firms and their contemporaries. Facebook is the biggest and perhaps the most visible target of the ire from regulators and the larger population, but this is a warning for all social media platforms.

Social media has increasingly become a collection of echo chambers and algorithms that reward engagement, creating a scenario where content is made with the intent to grab attention and create controversy. It is also true that social media platforms have done very little to tackle hate speech and racism issues on their platforms. Twitter, TikTok, and other such platforms are also equally a part of this larger conversation. 

There was a lot of promise when social media sites began, and the rise has been spectacular. But with it also grew the problem of a lack of accountability. For a person sitting behind an anonymous account or even their personal account, there is no consequence of making a rape threat or abusing someone online. There need to be better ways to deal with these types of issues.

Some of the issues around body image and depression are pretty eye-opening too. There are hushed whispers, researched studies, and personal realizations that each of us has about how social media overuse is leading to mental health issues. It is high time that social media platforms take these matters seriously.

Lastly, there is a message in this for content creators and influencers on the platform too. As people who are building communities and can influence opinion, they have to take a level of responsibility to make sure that their corner of the social media world becomes a safe space. There is also the need for real, authentic content and not one that has been heavily influenced by glitz and glamour. 


Final Thoughts

While the rhetoric around Facebook is mostly negative at the moment, it should be noted that there’s a lot of good in social media. As professionals who primarily rely on social media, we realize the power of the platforms in many different ways. We meet amazing people, have interesting conversations, build relationships, and buy and sell products and services on social media. The issues being discussed cast a pall over the brighter aspects of social media as a whole.

For social media platforms, there is a dire need to act. There need to be concrete steps to tackle issues of online abuse and hate speech. At the same time, the social media firms themselves must introspect about how they run things on the platform and their overall priorities.

The 2008 financial crisis taught us the concept of being “Too big to fail.” “Too big to be unregulated” should be a term we familiarize ourselves with now. While social media is different, connecting a large number of people comes with great responsibility. This responsibility has to feature relatively high on the priority list while chasing profits remains essential.

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