Heed the whistleblowers — step up public oversight of Facebook before it’s too late
The scathing revelations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen this week — that the social media giant “chose profit over” the safety and wellbeing of society and children, among other things — may seem like a bombshell to some.
The scathing revelations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen this week — that the social media giant chose profit over the safety and wellbeing of society and children, among other things — may seem like a bombshell to some.
But Ms Haugen is actually not the first Facebook insider to explicitly call out the root problem in the company: Relentless manipulation of its users via algorithmic tweaks and behaviourial nudges on its platforms, which include Instagram and WhatsApp.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a former senior Facebook executive who played a key role in the platform’s user growth in the company’s early days, has gone on record in public talks and media interviews admitting that social media companies like Facebook have created “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”.
In a by-now famous talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2017, Mr Palihapitiya described social media as “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that manipulate users into craving the next dose of “feel-good” hormones via a stream of likes, “hearts” and “thumbs up”.
“It forces you into this vicious cycle where you are like, ‘What’s the next thing I need to do now?’ Because I need (the dopamine fix) back,” he added.
Fast forward four years and compare his comments to what Ms Haugen said in an interview with 60 Minutes: “Facebook makes more money when you consume more content ... And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact, the more they consume …. Facebook has set up a system of incentives that is pulling people apart.”
What’s new this time is that Ms Haugen is backing up her revelations with a trove of internal documents. But signs are that the outcome will be the same — Facebook will brush off her criticisms, just as they had done with Mr Palihapitiya and others, and continue with its unchecked behaviour.
But we need not accept the status quo. Societies should heed the warnings from insiders like Ms Haugen and Mr Palihapitiya, and push back against these platforms with clear regulations and thorough audits.
Here are three areas that policymakers in Singapore ought to consider.
REAL-NAME REGISTRATION AND VERIFICATION SYSTEM
Try and fake your identity at an airport or train station anywhere around the world, and the authorities will come down on you hard and fast.
But if you do so on social media, that’s apparently fine.
This discrepancy is premised on the highly outdated notion that social media is “harmless” and “just for fun”. Why be so serious?
But we have seen countless examples, from incidents in Myanmar, India to the United States, demonstrating that social media is far from being a harmless activity or platform.
They can and have been exploited by bad actors to incite insurrections, murderous rampages and civil unrest.
One key reason these influence or interference campaigns have succeeded is the ease with which one can create multiple fake or bot accounts without fear of reprisal from social media companies or the authorities.
Yet, social media companies won’t ever willingly implement a real-name registration regime as doing so would drastically affect their user metrics.
As such, it is up to legislators to pass laws mandating such a requirement — a long overdue change, in my view, given how social media has become a core component of modern communication, e-commerce and social identity.
You can’t go around pretending to be someone else in real life. There’s no reason why you should be able to do that with impunity on social media.
AGE LIMIT FOR USERS
When social media first emerged, it was dismissed by older adults as “something for kids”. But nothing is further from the truth.
Third-party studies and research by the social media companies themselves have consistently shown that apps like Instagram harmed the mental health of teens.
And to rub salt into injury, Facebook was actively developing a new app called “Instagram Kids” until a public furore forced the company to declare a “pause” on the project last week.
The social media companies’ insatiable appetite for new and younger users is a feature, not a bug, of its fundamental economic model — serving up eyeballs and attention for digital advertising dollars.
As such, they will be compelled to keep finding new ways to lure young users to the platforms, much like what the tobacco companies do.
The comparison of social media usage to smoking may not be immediately obvious, but it is an apt one given that both are premised on addictive behaviours.
And just as we don’t expect tobacco companies to “self-regulate”, there should be no expectations that companies like Facebook will put in place good faith measures to restrict young users who are not ready for social media.
Government mandated age restrictions on activities unsuitable for the young — from smoking, alcohol consumption, to driving — are common around the world.
Similar interventions with regards to social media usage shouldn’t be seen as unusual or controversial either.
REVIEW SOCIAL MEDIA USE AND SPENDING BY GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL FIGURES
The third area is one that puts governments and politicians around the world in a bind, as they’ve come to rely increasingly on social media platforms to reach their constituents.
Can these policy makers and lawmakers still be impartial in regulating Facebook or Twitter, if they have become over reliant on these platforms for their political needs?
This is perhaps the most awkward question in the bigger scheme of things. An issue few have raised is whether governments and politicians have become bigger social media addicts than teenagers.
The issue is not a trivial one.
Government agencies and politicians around the world are turning more and more to social media to get their messages out. And they control or have access to huge budgets which can be spent to tilt the playing field on social media.
Most politicians and government agencies don’t command hundreds of millions of followers on social media.
As such, some have to pay Facebook or Twitter or Google to better target a particular audience, or to reach more of their desired demographic.
And if they can’t or won’t pay, then they’ll have to figure out how to “hack” the system by posting more of what the social media algorithms favour.
And in Facebook’s case, the algorithm favours angry, divisive content, as Ms Haugen revealed in her interview with 60 Minutes.
She said: “Political parties have been quoted in Facebook’s own research saying, ‘We know you’ve changed how you pick out the content that goes on the home feed. And if we don’t publish angry, hateful, polarising, divisive content...crickets, we don’t get anything….but if we don’t do these stories, we don’t get distributed….and if we don’t get traffic and engagement, we lose our jobs’.”
This is not to say that political messaging on social media is entirely malicious. There are legitimate uses for social media in politics, just as there have been for legacy media outlets.
But a politician or a party’s ability to influence large swathes of the public through social media spending has never been greater, and we cannot be naive about the implications.
The obvious question, here in Singapore and elsewhere, is: How much has Facebook (the dominant social media platform here, by far) altered political communication for the worse?
And how much of this social media-motivated rhetoric has seeped into real life behaviour and decisions?
I doubt anyone has answers.
But a proper accounting of social media’s broader impact on Singapore is something we can’t avoid if we want to understand how we’ve been changed as a society, and the solutions we need to prevent online-driven divisions from growing.
While headlines in the coming weeks will focus on Ms Haugen’s comments, the ones I remember most are still those in 2017 from Mr Palihapitiya, who said: “If you feed the beast, the beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in.”
He was certainly prescient about the first part. I hope we are not too late to act on the second part.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chua Chin Hon is Lead, Artificial Intelligence Strategy and Solutions for Mediacorp News Group. He was formerly a supervising editor at TODAY and before that bureau chief in China and the United States with The Straits Times.