Controversy within the digital sphere

Examining the flaws of Facebook


Claire Heyne

The current controversy surrounding Facebook has amplified conversations on issues like misinformation and harmful online content

Bipartisan Unity: an issue of agreeable importance

The testimony held on Tuesday garnered attention not only due to its provocative content surrounding Facebook from Haugen, but also due to unification between democratic and republican senators in addressing the issue. Connecticut’s senator, democrat Mr. Richard Blumenthal opened the hearing on Tuesday by thanking Haugen for her courage and acknowledging the severity of the issues at hand. Condemning the actions of Facebook CEO Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, Blumenthal said, “Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror today, and yet rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing… Mark Zuckerberg, you need to come before this committee, you need to explain to Frances Haugen, to us, to the world and to the parents of America what you are doing and why you did it.”

There was a unified approach in the opening remarks of the democratic and republican senators. Tennessee’s republican senator Ms. Marsha Blackburn said, “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the wellbeing of children—and all users. So as a mother and a grandmother, this is an issue that is of particular concern to me.”

It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the wellbeing of children—and all users. So as a mother and a grandmother, this is an issue that is of particular concern to me.

— Senator Marsha Blackburn

Hopes to improve the digital sphere in order to create a safer, more enjoyable internet is, unsurprisingly, a widespread hope for lawmakers and the general public. On the unity surrounding this issue, Mr. Patrick Churchill, who teaches AP Political Science, said, “It’s important enough for both the democrats and republicans to actually look into it and hold hearings.” Although Facebook has previously received criticisms regarding their practices, this time the focus on the protection of users, specifically teens, has caused more serious reflection. 

Misinformation: a digital pandemic

In Haugen’s testimony, she discussed two categories of internal research conducted at Facebook. One of these research categories was on the algorithm of Facebook and the way that certain types of content are promoted. Facebook’s failure to publicize their research and allow for any form of scrutiny towards it was regarded by Haugen as showing a lack of integrity as well as disregard for its users. She said, “The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.” 

These “divisive and extreme messages” include misinformation and disinformation, which are becoming increasingly prevalent on all social media platforms. With regard to the issue of misinformation, Mr. Churchill said, “I think we need to do a better job of understanding what’s real and what isn’t because there’s just so much of it out there that is partial truths or half-truths or just flat-out lies.” The problem, according to Haugen, is that Facebook is neglecting to mitigate the spread of inaccurate information, in fact, the algorithms used by Facebook often promote it.

I think we need to do a better job of understanding what’s real and what isn’t because there’s just so much of it out there that is partial truths or half truth or just flat-out lies.

— Mr. Patrick Churchill

When users log onto Facebook and look at their feed, it’s noticeably unchronological. This is because Facebook’s algorithm uses engagement-based ranking, meaning content that is more likely to elicit a reaction from users will be shown to them first, not what was most recently posted. Haugen said, “Facebook knows that when they pick out the content that we focus on using computers, we spend more time on their platform, they make more money.”

Facebook also utilizes meaningful social interactions, also known as MSIs, which encourage online interactions between users and their friends and family members. Haugen argued that MSIs facilitate the spread of misinformation and harmful content. On the nature of Facebook’s algorithm and MSIs, Haugen said, “Content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, comment or reshare.” The issue of Facebook’s algorithm and its prioritization of user engagement over truthful information lies at the heart of Haugen’s testimony and the discussions that have followed. 

At the hearing, Minnesota’s democratic senator Amy Klobuchar said, “When they allowed 99% of violent content to remain unchecked on their platform including the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, what did they do? Now we know Mark Zuckerberg was going sailing.” The violent capitol insurrection that occurred on Jan. 6, and the circulation of misinformation and harmful content on Facebook leading up to and following it, has become a key piece of evidence in the argument that Facebook’s algorithms promote high engagement and strong reactions over safety. Haugen is now set to meet with the House select committee that is investigating the insurrection.  

Despite the ability to try to “curate” social media feeds to avoid harmful or hateful content, many students say they have come across alarming content on social media such as hate speech. Some students come across this harmful content on a very frequent basis. Junior Aiden Engel said, “Basically every day.” Haugen’s testimony has brought the issue of a lack of protections for the impressionable to the forefront of many conversations, and many people are now agreeing that more should be done to protect social media users and to improve the integrity of the platforms.

What’s next for Facebook?

Right now, it’s difficult to say what Facebook’s course of action will be, however, Zuckerberg responded in a missive after Haugen’s testimony, denying the accusations made against Facebook. When asked if Facebook and other social media CEOs should be doing more to protect its users, senior Fardouza Farah said, “I think legally it’s a hard thing to argue for, but I definitely think there should be at least something being tried.”

Although some people believe that changes are a true possibility for the future of Facebook, some are less optimistic. On the possibility of future changes being made by Facebook, Mr. Churchill said, “I don’t think they’ll do anything.” As a nearly trillion-dollar company, Facebook doesn’t necessarily have to do anything. If they don’t, this action will reinforce Haugen’s argument that Facebook continually refuses to reform its known issues.