Facebook knows it is in trouble as Mark Zuckerberg picks his battles

Zuckerberg stayed away from the hearing but attempted to set the record straight. In a Facebook post, he insisted the company ‘deeply cares’ about issues such as safety, well-being, and mental health
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is defending allegations that the company has long ignored teenage safety on its platforms, particularly Instagram, resolving conflicts in favour of profits. (Photo Courtesy-NYT)
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is defending allegations that the company has long ignored teenage safety on its platforms, particularly Instagram, resolving conflicts in favour of profits. (Photo Courtesy-NYT)
Updated on Oct 06, 2021 02:21 PM IST
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ByVishal Mathur

When Senator Edward Markey on Tuesday called Frances Haugen “a 21st-century American hero,” it underlined the trouble Facebook finds itself in. Haugen, a former Facebook employee who appeared before a US Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, has blown the lid off what the social media company would have hoped remained a secret. She has highlighted how Facebook prioritised profits.

It did not help with the optics that Facebook chose Antigone Davis, its global head of safety, and vice president (global affairs and communications) Nick Clegg to contest Haugen’s claims. The outage of all Facebook services this week added to the company’s woes.

“Rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, (Facebook chief executive) Mr. (Mark) Zuckerberg is going sailing,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal in his opening remarks at the Senate hearing on the matter. Blumenthal’s appeared to be referring to a 38-second clip Zuckerberg posted online on Sunday featuring him and his wife sailing.

Facebook is defending allegations that the company has long ignored teenage safety on its platforms, particularly Instagram, resolving conflicts in favour of profits. Facebook has been accused of hiding internal research about how Instagram’s algorithms were negatively impacting young users’ mental health and other important information.

Zuckerberg stayed away from the hearing but attempted to set the record straight. In a Facebook post, he insisted the company ‘deeply cares” about issues such as safety, well-being, and mental health. He insisted there has been no attempt to hide any research and called allegations that the company focused on profits over people as “illogical”.

Also Read: FB whistle-blower’s complaint details importance of Indian polls, hate speech

Zuckerberg has not commented on issues that Haugen has raised in her complaint submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) along with internal documents. These include the interest in elections in countries such as India, how Facebook’s content detection mechanism is quite limited in scope and volume, the problem of duplicate accounts as well as hate speech.

“It’s difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives,” said Zuckerberg. “At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.”

Zuckerberg seemed to indicate that it is the coverage that is the problem, not the company and its policies. “I know it’s frustrating to see the good work we do get mischaracterized, especially for those of you who are making important contributions across safety, integrity, research, and product.”

Zuckerberg said he was particularly focused on the questions raised about their work with kids. “I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it’s very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids.”

Haugen’s complaint suggests that Facebook hid internal research on the scale of the negative impact that Instagram was having on young users. She has accused the company of repeatedly misleading users about claims of prioritising “meaningful social interactions” on its platforms, rather than the time spent metric.

There are specific concerns about Instagram’s mental health impacts on its youngest users, something Facebook’s internal research has flagged. In her testimony, Haugen said Facebook choose to mislead and misdirect. While the internal research indicates otherwise, the public position Instagram took on the matter seemed quite cheerful, perhaps because of selective data. “The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced.”

Last month, Instagram paused the development of its app meant for children below 13. The company justified the app saying kids are already online and were misrepresenting their age to download apps meant for older users. “While we’re pausing our development of ‘Instagram Kids’, we’ll continue our work to allow parents to oversee their children’s accounts by expanding these tools to teen accounts (aged 13 and over) on Instagram,” the company said in a statement.

This adds strength to the argument about Facebook’s inability to prioritise the safety of young users.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will do more research on the effects of social media on young people and make the results publicly available. He insisted the company did not push for profits ahead of user safety, privacy and well-being. “For example, one move that has been called into question is when we introduced the Meaningful Social Interactions change to News Feed. This change showed fewer viral videos and more content from friends and family -- which we did knowing it would mean people spent less time on Facebook, but that research suggested it was the right thing for people’s well-being.”

In her complaint, Haugen said Facebook consistently resolved those conflicts in favour of its own profits. “The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization — and undermining societies around the world.”

Zuckerberg did not respond to issues Haugen has cited regarding how Facebook has shown more interest in elections in certain countries. He did not also address the issues related to hate speech systems taking down 0.2% or so of the reported posts, etc.

Haugen highlighted how Bengali as a language is still not available as a classifier for content moderation even though Facebook claimed so in 2019. She cited how certain groups were allowed to post dehumanising content, incite violence, and run duplicate accounts to amplify their messaging. A lot of these issues raised in the complaint have a direct and significant impact on India and over 340 million Facebook users in the country.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021