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Profits over People: The Ongoing Facebook Question

For many Americans, Facebook is a fun way to connect with long-lost friends, play games, and enjoy pictures of everyone’s kids. But there is a dark underside that is just coming to light, even though Facebook insiders have been trying to blow the whistle for years. The last Presidential election and the pandemic have illuminated the need for controls of Facebook, where anyone can say anything that gets passed off as fact, not to mention the foreign influences that can infiltrate through artificial intelligence. Social media companies are not above reproach, and need to be regulated to protect the vulnerable from exploitation.

Heroes Heralded for Truth

For years, insiders at Facebook have been trying to tell the world that Facebook is more concerned with making money and growing bigger than it is with telling the truth. And it seems that finally someone is listening. Last week Frances Haugen made headlines revealing her identity after funneling private documents to the Wall Street Journal and Congress that prove her claims.

“This is not simply a matter of certain social media users being angry or unstable, or about one side being radicalized against the other,” said Haugen. “It is about Facebook choosing to grow at all costs, becoming an almost $1 trillion company by buying its profits with our safety.”

“A company with such frightening influence over so many people — over their deepest thoughts, feelings, and behavior — needs real oversight,” said Frances Haugen. She believes its products “harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”

And Frances Haugen is not the only Facebook employee to say so. Although much of the unrest is only posted on inner-company message boards, there are many before Haugen who have tried to tell the truth.

“I’m glad that these documents prove what many have been saying: Facebook’s leadership prioritizes growth and political power over the public good — and anyone who tries to change that continuously hits a wall,” said Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook executive who has visited Congress and met with lawmakers to discuss how she battled senior leadership over an unwillingness to fact-check misinformation in political ads.

Another former employee, Brian Waismeyer said the social network made it “uniquely difficult” for people with jobs like his — reformers within a growth-focused social media service — “to the point that it impedes progress and burns out those who grapple with it.”

Yet another story has surfaced recently from the integrity team that an algorithm that worked to find and eradicate harmful speech on the platform would be much more effective if allowed to overcorrect, but the executives in charge cancelled the project, not wanting to risk undue censorship. Many integrity team members at Facebook were frustrated because the project they had worked on so vigorously was pulled out from under them.

Algorithms Could Help the Cause

With so many Facebook employees telling the same story, it is getting harder to ignore. And with children’s safety and the spread of false information at stake, there is definitely cause for concern.

“This company could be vastly profitable but so much safer,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said during a news conference after the hearing. “They’ve just chosen the greediest path. … If they took a little bit less money but emphasized Facebook in the way they apply algorithms, they could help save lives.”

Clearly the technology is available. Artificial intelligence is getting more intelligent by the day, and the algorithms used by social media companies can point people in the right direction if allowed to do so.

“These problems are solvable. A safer, free speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible,” Frances Haugen said. “Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own. … Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is causing.”

She says that the algorithms can be manipulated to get rid of hate speech, and make children safer, but oftentimes the company did not want to invest the time and energy. For citizens around the country, especially those with young children, this news is disheartening.

Bumps in the Road

The news is filled with enough stories to show that social media can be devastating in the wrong hands, especially for children. And if the technology is available to solve the problem but is not being used, then there is cause for concern.

“Now that more and more young adults are on social media, we need to examine how their online identities are being protected,” Sen Marsha Blackburn said on Wednesday, adding that she was working through ideas with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I think we need to give a serious look at updating COPPA,” the 23-year-old Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

With the last protection act being 23 years old, imagine how much the technology has changed since then. Not only are there more insidious problems these days that were not even dreamed of back then, but scientists also have the technology to solve more problems that they couldn’t back then.

Although it seems like a positive to tighten up social media security, not everyone is happy. There is a lot at stake for Conservatives if Facebook is more regulated. “The only way for these guys to make money is Facebook—their entire business is Facebook,” says Matthew Sheffield, who created an early digital conservative site, Newsbusters, and served as the founding managing editor at another, the Washington Examiner. “They couldn’t survive in a true marketplace of ideas because their ideas are crap . . . exaggerated, sensationalist content that inflames emotions.”

Along with conservatives who want free reign over Facebook, CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg was unhappy with Haugen’s report, saying that the report created a “false picture of the company” and also said tech companies “should build experiences that meet” the needs of young people “while also keeping them safe.”

Children and their safety should be of utmost importance, ahead of information spreading, monetary gains, or politics. With the technology in place to solve the problems, Congress needs to act to keep social media as a safe haven of information and connections, no matter what a users’ age.

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