New documents expose Facebook – again

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SvD Näringsliv

This column was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on September 17th, 2021.

Human trafficking. Drug cartels. Teenage girls getting body image issues. Internal documents reveal how Facebook has been alerted to its problems – and ignored them. Now the company is facing another crisis of confidence.

When Facebook – the world’s largest social network – began crisis management after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, they made a somewhat ironic media choice. To reach out to the outside world in a clear way, the company purchased full-page advertisements in paper newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Observer.

The headline in the ad read:

“We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.”

Today, the question is rather whether the users of Facebook don’t deserve to know the information that the company has about themselves?

The question has become relevant in connection with a major exposé in the Wall Street Journal about Facebook. The newspaper has read a large number of internal documents and reports, and interviewed former employees. The documents show that their platform has been used for everything from human trafficking to misinformation about vaccines against covid-19. Facebook has been aware of this and has been warned by its own employees. Still, it has continued.

A common line of reasoning in situations like these is that the internet only reflects the society around it. What is happening in the world is also happening on the internet. Human trafficking did not start on Facebook. Thus, it is wrong to blame the platforms for a behavior that probably would have taken place even without them.

There is also some research support for this thesis. Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, researchers from Oxford University in England, showed in a 2019 study that 99.6 percent of British teenage children’s satisfaction with life had nothing to do with social media at all. The area is very controversial and under development, and there are several studies that also show the opposite.

While there is merit to the reasoning around the reflection of society, this is a situation where you need to keep two thoughts in your head at the same time. Just because you have not created the problem in question, does not mean that you should necessarily be completely neutral towards it. If a school knows that bullying is taking place in the schoolyard, it may not be the school’s fault. But with that knowledge – do they have no responsibility to curb that behavior? Of course we expect them to.

Take Instagram as an example – the photo service that Facebook bought for a billion dollars in 2012. In an internal document from 2020, a survey showed that 32 percent of teenage girls felt worse about their bodies after using Instagram. In another internal study from 2019, the internal research was summed up with the quote “we make body complexes worse for one in three teenage girls”. This knowledge had thus been known to the company for several years. In that context, it is therefore strange when the top manager on Instagram, Adam Mosseri, in May this year said that the research he took part of showed that their effect on teenagers was probably “quite small”.

Time and time again, we see examples of how Facebook messes up in different ways, and is forced to apologize. But their underlying thesis is that, on the whole, it is positive when people in the world are connected in the way that Facebook does. They believe that mistakes have been made, but they have been unintentional. Reports like the one above allows one to begin to question this lack of intention. On the contrary, there is much to suggest that Facebook’s problems have been well known for a long time, but simply not prioritized. Maybe for the benefit of the company’s growth.

Facebook is once again facing the difficulty of explaining its behavior as a company. How long can they continue to claim that what they are doing is positive for the world? And perhaps more importantly – how long will their users believe them?

This column was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on September 17th, 2021.

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