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How governments actually can — and should — tame Facebook

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“Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment, a moment of reckoning.” 

This was the prediction made final Tuesday by Richard Blumenthal, the 75-year-old senator from Connecticut, at first of a Senate subcommittee listening to analyzing allegations towards Facebook introduced by a former worker. 

That worker, Frances Haugen, a 37-year-old Harvard grad and two-year vet of Facebook as a product supervisor, mentioned through the listening to that she initially joined the corporate “because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us.” 

But she left and went public together with her considerations after figuring out that “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” 

In testimony that lasted over three hours, she accused the corporate of ignoring inner analysis that confirmed the hurt it was inflicting to younger customers — significantly teen women, 13.5 % of whom mentioned that Instagram elevated their ideas of suicide, based on one inner research — and being dishonest about its efforts to police hate speech and misinformation. 

As proof, Haugen supplied 1000’s of pages of inner analysis paperwork that she’d copied throughout her time as an worker. 

Even although Haugen claimed she wasn’t there to destroy her former employer — “I have a huge amount of empathy for Facebook,” she assured the subcommittee — it did appear to be it is likely to be the start of the top for the social media large. 

Maybe it was, as Blumenthal promised, analogous to the autumn of Big Tobacco. 

Not all people is so positive. Steven Levy, writer of “Facebook: The Inside Story,” informed The Post that we’ve been down this street earlier than. 

“The more obvious solutions — increasing privacy protection — have been known for years, and Congress has done little or nothing,” he mentioned. “It has nothing but bluster when it comes to cracking down on toxic content that does not violate the law.” 

When Sen. Markey of Massachusetts, who referred to as Haugen a “21st-century American hero,” introduced to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that “your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content and preying on children and teens is over,” Levy was unimpressed. 

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, testified before the Senate last week during a hearing into how Facebook damages the mental health of young people and spreads misinformation. But what pols plan to do about it is unclear.
Antigone Davis, Facebook’s international head of security, testified earlier than the Senate final week throughout a listening to into how Facebook damages the psychological well being of younger folks and spreads misinformation. But what pols plan to do about it’s unclear.
Pool/Sipa USA

“It reminded me of identical hollow threats when Zuckerberg testified in 2018,” he mentioned. 

Cynicism was the prevalent emotion even amongst huge tech novices. 

“OMG You mean Facebook prioritized it’s profits over the public GOOD!?!?” tweeted “The Office” actor Rainn Wilson. “Note: Please find me a company in this consumerist wasteland that HASN’T!” 

Though the controversy might appear to be enterprise as ordinary — Facebook will get outed for being morally corrupt, apologizes, will get wrist slapped — some, like Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, Zuckerberg advisor and writer of “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” say it’s something however. 

“Each scandal builds on the foundation of scandals that came before it,” he mentioned. “This one has the potential to be different.” 

Different how? It helps that Haugen, the human face of this scandal, comes throughout as credible and well-spoken. ”Her testimony was devastating,” mentioned McNamee. “It was authoritative and utterly convincing.” 

What’s extra, each Congress and the general public generally are not taking part in catch up. “It’s not just a lot of digital gobbledygook about algorithms and platforms,” mentioned Tom Wheeler, a expertise regulation advocate and former FCC Chairman from 2013 to 2017. “This is about profits over people, which is much easier to understand.” 

But most significantly, the rationale this may lastly be the nail in Facebook’s coffin is the documentation. 

“The whistleblower provided evidence that proves every bad thing on Facebook is the result of conscious choices by management,” McNamee mentioned. 

Or as Levy places it, “Frances Haugen is Facebook’s Snowden. It’s tough for Facebook to argue against its own research.” 

Not that they haven’t tried. In a 1,300-word observe posted Tuesday on Facebook, Zuckerberg tried to refute Haugen’s prices, claiming she painted “a false picture of the company.” 

Meanwhile, Adam Mosseri, the pinnacle of Facebook’s Instagram service, made a careless analogy throughout a Recode Media podcast interview final month, evaluating Facebook to vehicles. 

“We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy,” he mentioned. “And I think social media is similar.” 

Tech columnist Kevin Roose tweeted that it was a “weird tactic. Like if Chipotle was getting criticized for having salmonella in its guac or whatever and the CEO’s response was like, ‘Well, scaled food production has had many benefits for humanity, including freeing us from being hunter-gatherers.’ ” 

Taking on Facebook isn’t any straightforward job. Australia has gone to battle with the tech large this yr, with the nation’s highest courtroom deciding final month that media shops may very well be held answerable for defamatory feedback posted by readers on their respective Facebook pages. (CNN is the primary main news outlet to choose out of Australia’s Facebook.) 

On Wednesday, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher mentioned they’re nonetheless investigating ”the query of whether or not Facebook themselves are liable.” 

It might sound like new terrain, however McNamee mentioned the authorized battle towards Facebook is just not with out precedent. 

“The food production and medicine industries were unsafe until the passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906,” he mentioned. “The petrochemicals industry was a threat to public health and the environment until the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Environmental Protect Act in the ’60s and ’70s.” 

Each time, the method started with out consultants in Congress. “Reform creates incentives for members to develop expertise,” McNamee added. “And that process has already begun in tech.” 

That optimism isn’t shared by Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech entrepreneur and writer of “Woke, Inc.” While he thinks Facebook “deserves criticism for its rampant institutional lying,” he additionally believes that the investigation by Congress is heading within the flawed path. 

When Facebook and its apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, went down Monday, they showed how dependant society’s become on them — despite their dangers.
When Facebook and its apps, together with Instagram and WhatsApp, went down Monday, they confirmed how dependant society’s grow to be on them — regardless of their risks.

“The main argument is, Facebook didn’t do enough to stop misinformation and hate speech,” he mentioned. “That could be used as political cover to allow Facebook to work hand in glove with the government, to socially and possibly even politically empower Facebook to engage in craven censorship far more than they already have.” 

There’s additionally the query of whether or not Facebook has grow to be so ubiquitous within the trendy world that it’s just too huge to fail. We received a style of our dependency on the platform final Monday, when Facebook’s apps — which embody Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus — went down for six hours, prompted (based on the corporate) by an issue with its community configuration. 

Zuckerberg apologized for the disruption in an announcement, including “I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about.” 

That reliance could be the largest ace in Facebook’s hand. 

“For lots of people, it represents a lifeline to the world, something that has been exacerbated during the pandemic,” mentioned MSNBC columnist Michael A. Cohen and writer of “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.” 

There is likely to be opponents desirous to take Facebook’s place, however “adopting new technologies is easier said than done,” Cohen mentioned. “Other companies can do what they do, but no one has the scale they do. So it’s virtually impossible to replace them. I sympathize and generally agree with Facebook’s critics, but if you don’t recognize the vital role, you’re kind of missing the forest for the trees.” 

Ramaswamy believes the other — that not solely can we live with out Facebook, we should be, particularly relating to kids. 

“Those teen body image issues have to be dealt with offline in our culture, through our churches and communities and families and schools,” he mentioned. “Those aren’t issues that I want to delegate Facebook responsibility for managing. That would make them even more socially powerful than they already are.” 

Even if Facebook continues to function as its pleases, Ramaswamy wish to see extra restrictions on what kids can and can’t entry on social media. 

“If you can’t smoke an addictive cigarette till you’re 18, maybe you shouldn’t be able to use an addictive social media site either,” he mentioned. 

Wheeler agrees that the answer doubtless gained’t be the top of social media as we all know it. “Nobody is talking about putting a time bomb under Facebook and blowing it up,” he mentioned. “We’re just talking about the way Facebook operates.” 

If the federal government imposes strict rules, it’ll have an effect on the corporate’s earnings, “but it won’t stop your ability to communicate with your old high school friends,” Wheeler added. 

Or possibly it is going to. Time will inform if Facebook is confronted with real penalties that have an effect on how the world communicates. 

The most essential query of Facebook’s very dangerous week might not be whether or not the corporate has been mendacity to customers or whether or not they’re prepared to alter, however whether or not a world with out Facebook is even potential. 

“We lost it for six hours the other day,” Wheeler mentioned, “and the sun still came up.”

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