How do you solve a problem like Facebook?
The social media giant is under intense scrutiny. But can it be reined in?
Facebook — or Meta, as it has rebranded itself — is an enormously wealthy and powerful company, with nearly 3 billion monthly active users on its social media platforms and a market valuation of nearly $1 trillion. But these days it has few friends.
Over the past few weeks, the world has gotten a glimpse inside Facebook and its all-powerful algorithm through a trove of confidential internal documents spirited out of the company by a former employee, Frances Haugen. Haugen gave the documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission, then The Wall Street Journal, and now more than a dozen major media companies around the world are sifting through the Facebook Papers. Haugen has publicly aired Facebook's dirty laundry on 60 Minutes and in testimony before lawmakers in the U.S. and Britain.
The gist of the revelations is that Facebook is doing tremendous social and political harm around the world, has known this in granular detail for years, has the tools to fix at least some of these societal ills, and yet "time and again, despite congressional hearings, its own pledges, and numerous media exposés, the company didn't fix them," choosing growth and profit over safety, the Journal reports.
Facebook strongly disputes this characterization, arguing it has spent billions of dollars and hired 40,000 people to cull misinformation and harmful content off its platform. But the continuing stream of documents from Haugen and other whistleblowers shows that Facebook and its decisions are linked to body image problems among girls, the viral spread of vaccine misinformation, human trafficking, teen suicide, and increased rage, as well as brutal atrocities in Myanmar, festering extremism in Afghanistan, political violence in India, widespread abuse of domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, and election manipulation around the world.
Some of the problems at Facebook are shared by other social media companies. But Facebook is the giant, and this time it appears the public relations mess is so big, change is coming. But just how do you solve a problem like Facebook?
Governments may be the only entities large and powerful enough to force Facebook to change, and since Facebook is an American company, the U.S. government arguably has a unique responsibility to act. Facebook now says it welcomes regulation — well, it wants Congress "to begin to create standard rules for the internet" — and there is bipartisan legislation that would require Facebook and other social media platforms to warn users about the algorithms that control what information they see, and allow them to opt out. Other proposals would strip Facebook of some of the legal protections it has for content hosted on its platforms.
Before Congress takes any meaningful action, the European Union is expected to enact its Digital Services Act, which would require social media companies to regularly assess risks on its platforms, with outside monitoring, and fine them heavily if they don't comply. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on an Online Safety Bill that would hang on social media companies a duty of care to protect users from harmful content — not just illegal content, as in the EU — though political ads, politicians, and publishers are exempt.
2. Facebook, heal thyself
One of the biggest problems exposed in the Facebook Papers is how its central algorithms feed users rage-inducing junk content. The company has been reluctant to change this byway to fury and radicalization, Haugen testified, because content that elicits an emotional response keeps users more "engaged," meaning they spend more time on Facebook and Instagram, and "they make more money." But the leaked documents "are also full of thoughtful suggestions for how to correct those flaws," Wired reports.
Most of those suggestions involve scrapping Facebook's fixation on engagement and instead feeding users their friends' posts in reverse chronological order, or ranking content based on quality — like Google's PageRank search algorithm — or, as one Facebook engineer suggested in late 2019, "optimize more precisely for good experiences."
These suggestions have not been adopted, but Facebook has some of the world's best experts on its payroll, Samidh Chakrabarti, the former leader of Facebook's Civic Integrity team, argued on Twitter, and it should restructure its chain of command so the data scientists have more power to enact change, with their research made public "on all matters of societal import."
3. Dismantle Facebook, depose Zuckerberg
Ultimately, "the problem with Facebook is Facebook," says media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan. Dan Brahmy, an Israeli social media and disinformation expert, argues that it's unrealistic to expect a trillion-dollar company like Facebook to voluntarily change such a lucrative engagement-driven business model. And Politico chief technology correspondent Mark Scott says "no likely law in the U.S. would deal with this underlying issue" of Facebook prioritizing negative, viral content.
The Federal Trade Commission is pursuing an antitrust case against Facebook that could potentially break up the company, though at most it would likely split off Instagram and WhatsApp, leaving the main social network intact. If banning Facebook is off the table, "it's time for new leadership," former Facebook political advertising monitor Yael Eisenstat told Time. Zuckerberg is "a king, he's not a CEO," Eisenstat added. "He can't be fired. Normally in a publicly traded company, the board can fire the CEO, or shareholders can pressure the CEO to leave. But at Facebook, there's no pressure mechanism."
4. Laissez le Facebook faire
Maybe the free market will solve the Facebook problem. For all of Zuckerberg's power, he hasn't been able to reverse Facebook's waning engagement and stagnating growth in the key U.S. and European markets. "Worse, the company is losing the attention of its most important demographic — teenagers and young people — with no clear path to gaining it back," AP reports. "Unless Facebook can find a way to turn this around, its population will continue to get older and young people will find even fewer reasons to sign on, threatening the monthly user figures that are essential to selling ads," its financial lifeblood.
"Good luck with that," The Week's Joel Mathis writes. "Whistleblower revelations may lead Congress to regulate Facebook or even break up the company," he says. "But the real threat to Facebook's power and influence in our lives might be all those teens who think Snapchat is cooler."
5. Cut Facebook down to human scale
A tiny number of "super-inviters" make up a disproportionate amount of Facebook's spammy underbelly, Wired reports. Capping the number of invites and friend requests users can send out would help Facebook tamp down on dangerous movements before they go viral. Or maybe we need to think even bigger about making Facebook smaller, Ian Bogost argues at The Atlantic. After all, limiting social media is something we already accept — Twitter's 280 characters, or YouTube time limits — so "what if, for example, you could post to Facebook only once a day, or week, or month?" Bogost suggests. "Or what if, after an hour or a day, the post expired, Snapchat style? Or, after a certain number of views, or when it reached a certain geographic distance from its origins, it self-destructed? That wouldn't stop bad actors from being bad, but it would reduce their ability to exude that badness into the public sphere."
Facebook may resist the hit to its engagement cash cow, but "such a constraint would be technically trivial to implement" and it would be universal and politics-neutral, Bogost writes. "Wouldn't it just be better if fewer people posted less stuff, less frequently, and if smaller audiences saw it?"
Probably not for Facebook. But if the Facebook Papers are accurate, humanity might well be better off.