Facebook has grown into a planet-wide, $1 trillion company that allows people to connect online with family and friends, sharing photos and “liking” the posts of others. Beneath this benign façade lies a vast network where Facebook profits by promoting discord, violence, human trafficking and by driving young people, especially girls, into a self-loathing that can spiral into depression and suicide. Facebook knows all this. A trove of leaked internal Facebook documents led to a recent series of explosive exposés by the Wall Street Journal. On Sunday, the whistleblower who released the documents, Frances Haugen, appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” then, on Tuesday, went before a Senate Commerce subcommittee.
“I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety,” Haugen testified. “Facebook consistently resolved these conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat… this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.”
Facebook has an estimated three billion users around the world, and also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, social media applications with another combined three billion users. Instagram, popular with teens, encourages users to post selfies and videos. Metrics like the number of followers one has, or the number of likes, dislikes and shares that a post receives, weigh heavily on the psyches of many of these young users, often negatively.
This exchange from Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview illustrates the problem:
“Scott Pelley: One study says 13.5 per cent of teen girls say Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse; 17 per cent of teen girls say Instagram makes eating disorders worse.
Frances Haugen: What’s super tragic is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed, and it actually makes them use the app more. So they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more. Facebook’s own research says it is not just that Instagram is dangerous for teenagers, that it harms teenagers; it’s that it is distinctly worse than other forms of social media.”
Among the documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal was a leaked slide from a 2019 internal Facebook/Instagram presentation entitled “Teen Mental Health Deep Dive.” In it, company researchers admit, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” A list follows, specifying how:
“Teens specifically call out the following as ways that Instagram harms their mental health:
- pressure to conform to social stereotypes
- pressure to match the money and body shapes of influencers
- the need for validation — views, likes, followers
- friendship conflicts, bullying and hate speech
- over-sexualization of girls
- inappropriate advertisements targeting to vulnerable groups”
Facebook’s targeting of teens has been compared to Big Tobacco covering up the harmful and addictive properties of cigarettes for decades while hooking younger and younger smokers.
The destructive web of toxic content pushed through Facebook and Instagram goes much further. As the leaked documents reveal, Facebook has known for years that its platforms are used by criminal organizations. Mexican cartels have used Facebook to recruit young people to become killers and to post videos celebrating their violent acts.
Human trafficking organizations use Facebook to recruit domestic workers for assignments in the Middle East, then confiscate the passports of these workers, many of whom come from Africa, and then sell the work contracts. Workers are then often subjected to slavery-like conditions, some even shackled to prevent flight.
In conflict zones, Facebook has played a central role in fanning the flames of racial and ethnic hatred, encouraging violence that has contributed to mass murder and ethnic cleansing against minority populations like the Rohingya Muslims in Burma and against the Tigrayan people in Ethiopia.
Facebook has known that its platform was causing harm, but has refused to take action. CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself has intervened, overriding company investigators who suggest fixes to these problems that might impact Facebook’s profitability. Facebook and Zuckerberg refuse to hire enough content monitors — especially in languages other than English, which make up the vast majority of users — or to adjust the secret algorithm that drives the company’s enormous profits.
“The shocking part here is the number of bald-faced lies repeated over and over again,” Jessica González, co-CEO of the media advocacy organization Free Press, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. “It indicates clearly that Facebook is unfit to self-govern and that we need the U.S. Congress and the administration to step in and provide transparency and accountability.”
We — our attention, our time spent on these sites and apps — are the product that Facebook sells to advertisers. We must demand accountability. Congressional and anti-trust action is needed now, to rein in this sprawling, global monopoly that profits off pain.
This column originally appeared on the Democracy Now! website.