The Latest Facebook Whistleblower Prompts a Reminder about Privacy and Social Media

On October 5, Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook and whistleblower who disclosed tens of thousands of Facebook’s internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission, testified before a Senate committee, revealing that Facebook is fully aware of the harm it causes, such as intentionally targeting young children despite social media’s detrimental effects on mental health and stoking political division, all in pursuit of astronomical profits.

Her testimony was based on her time working for Facebook’s civic integrity division before leaving the company in May. She reported that Facebook’s leadership implemented a “structure of incentivization” that directed resources away from important safety programs, such as removing underage users and hate speech, to instead focus on platform changes that fuel growth. Haugen said that these efforts led to performance metrics that encouraged harm to mental health, and even violence.

Facebook and Instagram Have a Huge Impact on Society

Revelations from the documents have intensified growing concerns about Facebook’s involvement in the January 6 attack on the Capitol earlier this year. Prior to the testimony, an internal Facebook memo revealed that Haugen planned to accuse the company of turning off some election-related safety measures — such as limits on live video streaming — too soon after Election Day, resulting in a flood of misinformation and enabling groups to plan an organized attack on the Capitol building. She was also set to say that Facebook saw record profits after making changes that contributed to the growing political polarization on its platform.

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Internal research also showed that Facebook is very aware of the impact that Instagram has on children, particularly teen girls and their mental health. In a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, 32 percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Comparisons on Instagram can change how the 22 million teens who log onto Instagram in the US each day view and describe themselves.

We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

These recent events have reminded us just how much control Facebook and other social media platforms have over which pictures, videos, and news users see. Most social media platforms use algorithms to collect all kinds of data about each user, from age and location to shopping habits and political preferences. Then that information is used to create a more personalized experience for the user.

At best, these algorithms help users discover new people and content they might be interested in by suggesting content based on prior activity. However, many critics have pointed out that these algorithms could overly personalize a user’s feed and send them down troubling rabbit holes that can expose them to toxic content and misinformation. Either way, these algorithms keep us scrolling longer, potentially earning Facebook even more money by showing users more ads.

Most social media companies also sell their user data to other companies as paid advertising. Although these platforms are (almost) always free to use, that’s because the companies make money in other ways. Oftentimes, it’s because the app isn’t the product, but its users are.

I’ve written about how we traded privacy for convenience years ago before, so no one should be surprised that Facebook uses its data to make money. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are for-profit companies, so they need to make money somehow. That’s why they designed algorithms that collect data based on user behavior that predict shopping habits, product preferences, and future trends.

Because social media platforms collect all kinds of data about individual users, this information can be used for more than predicting the upcoming holiday shopping trends. This data can be purchased by other companies and used to determine consumers’ political stances, sexual orientations, and more with extreme accuracy. For example, an insurance provider could buy user data from a social media company so they can evaluate a person’s health and decide their risk or liability. Essentially, users pay to use social media platforms by exchanging access to information about themselves so social media companies make a profit.

This isn’t the first time we have seen the truth about social media, and it won’t be the last. Although it’s easy to blame these issues about data and privacy on a specific company like Facebook, these issues reflect how we interact with social media today. In a couple of years, we will probably have the same conversation about TikTok. Although the Internet has given us unparalleled access to information, social media has transformed how we talk to others and see ourselves  —  and not always in a good way.

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