Will we one day think of Facebook the way we now think of cigarettes? Or is the company more akin to the gun lobby? Perhaps the alcohol industry is the closer fit. As we shall see, there’s merit in all three comparisons, given the lethal harm this company is inflicting. Except those parallels actually understate the problem.
For none of them quite gets at the sheer scale and power of this single corporation. That reality was made especially vivid this week, when a six-hour outage confirmed that 3 billion people around the globe have come to depend on Facebook, along with its properties WhatsApp and Instagram, as the place to do business and find out about the world. Facebook might like to pretend that it’s simply a place where friends and family can “connect”, but it’s much bigger than that – and far more dangerous.
Hence the comparison to big tobacco. In the early 1960s, scientists at one cigarette maker, Reynolds, concluded that the evidence that smoking was linked to cancer was “overwhelming”. Meanwhile, researchers at the rival firm Philip Morris were drawing up a list of dozens of carcinogens in cigarette smoke. But guess what – none of that information was made public. On the contrary, for more than three decades, the tobacco industry refused to admit any evidence of harms from smoking, even though its own research told the exact opposite story.
Now listen to the testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who this week unmasked herself as the whistleblower behind a series of shattering revelations published initially by the Wall Street Journal. One internal document from 2019 shows that Facebook’s own research found Instagram – which brims with pictures of lean, toned bodies – to be psychologically toxic for young women in particular. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” it read, adding that teens themselves “blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression”. Did Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, admit this finding when he came before Congress in March? He did not. Instead he said: “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits.” In other words, smoking is good for you.
But if we’re talking about life and death, Facebook’s role is more direct than psychological harm alone. Haugen testified that the platform is “fanning ethnic violence” in Ethiopia, just as it did to devastating effect in Myanmar, where Facebook eventually admitted its role as a deadly weapon in a campaign by the military against the Rohingya Muslim minority that led to murder, rape and dispossession. The authorities in Nigeria similarly say fake news spread on Facebook is killing people, as groups attack each other in retaliation for atrocities that never happened.
Facebook knows about those problems too, and though it always makes the right noises about “learning lessons” and “doing better”, it does all too little. Haugen pointed out that 87% of the money Facebook spends combating misinformation is directed at content in English. You can see why, given the media and political pressure the company came under in the US over the platform’s poisonous role in the 2016 presidential election. But only 9% of Facebook users are English speakers. Many of the rest live in Africa or south-east Asia, where Facebook is wreaking havoc.
Facebook is so huge, so pervasive, that it’s easy to become fatalistic about dealing with any of this: it’s a giant too big to wrestle to the ground. Calls for boycott don’t work: consumers find the platform too useful, advertisers find it too effective. But that does not mean there is nothing to be done. We are not powerless in the face of Goliath.
For one thing, there will be more whistleblowers: Haugen was not the first, and she won’t be the last. Clearly the company recruited some ethical people who now feel disgusted by their employer. What’s more, Haugen’s revelations struck a chord with a crucial group: parents who now fear for their children’s safety. The tech watcher Scott Galloway predicts a movement akin to Mothers against Drunk Driving, which succeeded in pushing politicians to lower the legal limit for blood alcohol, in the face of fierce opposition from the drinks industry.
If governments decide to act, there is no shortage of things they could do. A first move is to demand to see inside Facebook’s algorithms, to reveal what the company already knows about itself: that its quest for ever greater “engagement” and growth means it’s wired to fuel and feed off rage. Facebook knows how to turn off that switch. The leaked documents show that executives were offered fixes that would have dialled down the rancour, but they chose not to adopt them.
In the US, Congress needs to revise section 230, a bit of law that essentially covers the social media companies in a blanket of immunity. If newspapers can be sued for defamation and manufacturers sued for faulty products, Facebook should be sued for the harm it does. And, if they are to have a deterrent effect, the fines will have to be, as one anti-Facebook campaigner puts it, “catastrophically huge”. Think of it as the “polluter pays” principle: Facebook is polluting the supply of information, and it needs to pay.
There are other remedies. Break up the Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp behemoth under anti-trust laws. Change the rules on data protection and ownership. And if it’s found that a Facebook executive lied to Congress, charge him or her with perjury.
In the end, the cigarette makers had to bow before the law. But, thanks to decades of dishonesty and dissembling and their determination to put profits before people’s safety, it came too late: millions of lives were lost. This time, we cannot wait.