Meta Platform Incorporated, formerly known as Facebook Inc., has been under constant pressure in the past couple of years due to user privacy issues. The Bay Area tech giant now turns to face a new challenge from a former employee.
Frances Haugen recently released a plethora of confidential company documents revealing Meta’s misuse of data handling on its platforms Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Combined, the three social media sites have a monthly active user count numbering slightly under six billion according to the company’s 2021 quarter three report. Furthermore, Haugen’s documents have revealed insider information on how Meta has disregarded the ways in which its users spread misinformation and hate speech on its platforms. Multiple news sources have also called out Meta’s passive action regarding domestic issues such as the 2020 election and vaccine safety. Moreover, they have struggled internationally with other controversies such as the spread of violence in Myanmar, and ethnic descrimination in Ethiopia’s growing refugee crisis.
Haugen has also recently testified in front of Congress and members of the UK Parliament. Taking on the role of whistleblower, Haugen is calling for legislation to implement regulatory measures for companies similar to Meta. These regulations would place limits on algorithms used by Meta’s public media sharing and forum social networking sites (i.e Facebook and Instagram). Along with the aforementioned issues, one of the largest concerns raised about these sites is the impact on the mental health of adolescent teens, especially young women.
Haugen’s scrutinization of Meta has raised questions in the Urban community about their social media usage. ”My social media became a lot more about how I presented myself online and it became very comparable to my peers and my friends,” said Sofie Van Natta ‘22. “Also, I think, there’s just very unhealthy content online and that constant sense of communication can be really anxiety-inducing.”
Facebook and Instagram’s data is collected from users’ interactions, on and even off their sites. It takes posts most interacted with and shows them and related content to the account. Based on the ever-growing user base, the code we now dub “the algorithm” has proven to be very effective at keeping people on the site by showing posts that are most interesting to them, even if they can be harmful.
An anonymous student, who has not been named to protect their privacy, said, “I really had problems with an eating disorder from seventh grade to freshman year, and I would say that most of that was fueled by social media… There were things on Instagram that would promote eating disorders and it’s really hard to get away from that.”
Although the algorithm controls what we see day-to-day, there is an argument to be made around the issue of irresponsible users. Social media sites act as a worldwide interactive viewing space where anybody can put anything. Even with moderators and report features, it’s tough to remove the millions of posts that are causing harm. “I think there is some responsibility on the people who spread the fake news, but again, we can’t really control that.” said Joselyn Xa-Chin ‘23. “You can’t control how Facebook [Meta] monitors and distributes their information.”
Additionally, it is important to note that Haugen is not suing Meta, but instead trying to regulate them. There is not much financial incentive for Haugen, nor personal benefit. History and Constitutional Law Teacher Kristjiana Gong, said, “[whistle] blowing is not a fun game. Even if you’re a tinfoil high conspiracy theorist who whistle blows, people thinking that you are out of your mind is not fun, especially having your life pulled apart to determine the veracity of any statement.” Gong said.
Even though lawmakers have the power to do so, the possibility remains that even with this level of pressure and news coverage, it borders on impossible to regulate Meta in an effective way that still makes their sites as user-friendly as they are now.
“A critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency: full access to data for research not directed by Facebook,” Haugen said in an official statement when testifying for Congress. “They want you to believe you must choose between connecting with those you love online and your personal privacy… I am here to tell you today that’s not true. These problems are solvable. A safer, more enjoyable social media is possible.”