Editorials, Opinion

Facebook’s bad days show government needs to step in

EDITOR’S NOTE: This online-only version contains additional information not found in the print or e-edition of today’s paper.

It’s been a harrowing 72-or-so hours for social media giant Facebook.

First, a whistleblower who sent documents to the SEC last month gave a powerful interview to 60 Minutes, which aired Sunday evening. Then on Monday, Facebook and its family of apps (including Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus) were down for hours. Finally, whistleblower Frances Haugen gave comprehensive and compelling testimony before a Senate committee Tuesday morning.

No wonder Facebook’s stock took a 4.9% plunge.

Facebook’s troubles highlight two major issues with the social media conglomerate: The hazards of a monopoly and the need for greater government regulation.

Late Monday, Facebook announced the hourslong outage was caused by “a faulty configuration change” and added there is “no evidence that user data was compromised as a result” of the outage. While some will surely say that forcing people off social media for a while is a good thing (and it probably was, for many of us), the outage had very real real-world consequences.

The New York Times interviewed several business owners across the world who faced loss of revenue as they couldn’t use platforms such as Facebook or WhatsApp to connect to customers. A gentlemen in Delhi told the NYT that he lost an entire day of sales: He doesn’t have a website; just a company Facebook page, and he takes orders from his business’ social media page as well as direct orders to his WhatsApp. With both services down for the count, he was left unable to reach or be reached by customers. It also became an issue when people who use Facebook to log into third-party sites (such as other apps or shopping websites) were unable to access their accounts.

The biggest problem here is that one company owns and operates a variety of apps and websites that people use to connect in ways that making a regular phone call can’t. (For example, calling, texting and video chatting are free on WhatsApp and Messenger, which operate on WiFi. This is beneficial for people who can’t afford a cellular plan or can’t get cell signal in their area.) Since all the services run on the same servers, when one went down, they all went down, taking a sizable chunk of the world’s communication with it.

The other doozy (well, doozies) was Haugen’s bombshell drop — both on 60 minutes and before the Senate — that Facebook has consistently and knowingly put corporate profit ahead of public good. In the two most egregious examples she gave, Facebook buried research that shows Instagram can negatively impact teen girls’ perception of their bodies, contributing to body dysmorphia and/or eating disorders. This relates to Haugen’s other revelation: that Facebook’s algorithm is designed to keep users on the platforms no matter what. That means promoting content that gets the most engagement and that the individual user is most likely to engage with — in Haugen’s words “angry, hateful content.” This often involves showing increasingly extreme and/or politically polarizing material.

CBS Evening News reported Monday evening about more internal research, in which Facebook set up a test account following Donald Trump, Melania Trump and Fox News. By day two, the algorithm was promoting conspiracy theories on the account’s newsfeed. By week one, it was showing QAnon posts and by week two, the newsfeed was “comprised by and large with misleading or false content.”

Haugen was part of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, which focused on how Facebook influenced elections worldwide. In her 60 Minutes interview, Haugen alleged that Facebook dismantled all its election-related safeguards — including the Civic Integrity team — right after the 2020 election, because those same safeguards limited Facebook’s ability to optimize profits. In the absence of defenses, extremists were able to use the platform to organize the Jan. 6 insurrection and the algorithm stoked more anger and hate.

Though it was barely a footnote in much of the media coverage, the documents Haugen uncovered also suggest that human traffickers and other criminal enterprises use Facebook’s service to facilitate their misdeeds.

All of this leads us to one pretty obvious conclusion: The social media giant — and social media in general — needs more government oversight.

When a company consistently puts profits ahead of public safety (and may we remind you five people died at or as a result of the Jan. 6 insurrection) and controls enough of the market to paralyze parts of the world with one outage, then it is the government’s responsibility to step in and impose regulations — and consequences.