Stricter regulation of social media appears to be on the cards following Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's testimony on Tuesday, October 5 before the US Senate Sub-Committee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. This is part of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
This is the latest in many high-profile hearings focusing on the so-called giants of the web – such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon – about their practices, their monopolies, and how these are affecting the wellbeing of people and societies.
In the three-hour hearing, Haugen raised several points that researchers and activists have raised against the social-media giant, including concerns regarding privacy, misinformation, and the mental well-being of its users especially children. The fact that just 12 people generates two-thirds of anti-vaccination content on Facebook, was a particularly alarming piece of research.
Haugen stated that she joined Facebook in 2019 after someone close to her became radicalized online. She worked as the lead product manager for Civic Misinformation and later on Counter-Espionage. And she reports that if there were conflicts between Facebook’s profits and user safety, the company consistently took the side of the profits.
“The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization — and undermining societies around the world. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people,” Haugen said in her written testimony.
“In other cases, their profit optimizing machine is generating self-harm and self-hate — especially for vulnerable groups, like teenage girls. These problems have been confirmed repeatedly by Facebook’s own internal research. This is not simply a matter of some social media users being angry or unstable. Facebook became a $1 trillion company by paying for its profits with our safety, including the safety of our children. And that is unacceptable.”
In her testimony, Haugen delivered many actionable suggestions on ways that the many problems can be resolved but she states that it's not a case of merely updating existing laws. It is creating new ones that will make Facebook accountable. Among the suggestions, there’s the need to make Facebook more transparent so that its impact can be fairly assessed.
Also practical ones such as changing the news feed to chronological posts instead of ranking content via their algorithm, which has been criticized for rewarding polarizing and misleading content. Points were also raised detailing that not enough focus is given to misinformation in languages other than English.
“Congress will be taking action. We will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy, any longer,” Senator Ed Markey said during the hearing.
Facebook is not having the best week, going offline completely on Monday. But appear to have taken this on its chin. Despite disagreeing with most of Haugen’s testimony, Facebook agrees that Congress must act. Lena Pietsch, the director for Policy Communications said in a statement: “Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet.” She added: “It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”