Mick Clifford: The ugly truth of Facebook laid bare once again

The revelations made by whistleblower Frances Haugen have once again shone a light on the damage done by social media giant Facebook
Mick Clifford: The ugly truth of Facebook laid bare once again

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen at this week's Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, in Washington where she said she believes "Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” Picture: Alex Brandon/AP

A few years back there was a major controversy over government attempts to roll out the public service card. 

One of the main planks of objection was that the move was perceived as a ploy to hoover up personal data. Nineteen Eight-Four, George Orwell’s dystopian novel about state surveillance and control, was mentioned half in jest, fully in earnest.

At the height of it, social welfare minister Regina Doherty declared that the card would be mandatory but not compulsory to claim social welfare. It was all downhill from there, as if Ms Doherty had let the Orwellian cat out of the bag. Big Brother was sent off to the Dunce’s corner and the citizenry claimed victory over this attempt to corral their personal lives into neat files to be used against them at some point in the future.

The furore about the public service card came to mind during the week as the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen gave evidence before a Senate committee in Washington. A huge chunk of the population - every day - hands over personal data to Facebook and its subsidiary company Instagram. There are two billion Facebook accounts on the planet, over three million in this country. Instagram reaches out to 1.8m account holders in Ireland.

The company knows what you like and don’t like, what annoys you and doesn’t, what makes you angry, where you’re likely to shop and holiday, what your politics is and, quite often, what you may have had for breakfast this very morning. Most of all, Facebook is really good at enticing you back to its platform and, crucially, keeping you there. 

So if it’s Big Brother you’re keeping an eye on, don’t bother about the State’s attempt to get a wee handle on your identity. The social media network, by comparison, would have been way beyond the most dystopian reaches of George Orwell’s imagination.

On Tuesday, Ms Haugen introduced herself to the politicians with the following: “I am here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” 

This was not hyperbole. We knew about the stoking division. 

A 'deadly experiment' in Myanmar

The most egregious example of this was the role Facebook played in softening up the people of Myanmar before a massacre was perpetrated on the minority Muslims, the Rohingya.

In 2017, the military in Myanmar set up numerous fake Facebook accounts in which Muslims were cast as vermin. They produced false material showing Rohingya attacking and raping Buddhists, the majority religion in the country. 

The company was warned repeatedly about what was going on, according to the recently published book on the social media network, An Ugly Truth. Yet nothing was done. 

The mission statement handed down from CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg to his employees was that connectivity and engagement was the bottom line. Any interference, particularly against the rulers of the south Asian country, would have meant less users, less connectivity, less growth, less profit from advertisers.

As relayed in An Ugly Truth: “The root of the disinformation problem, of course, lay in the technology. Facebook was designed to throw gas on the fire of any speech that invoked an emotion, even if it was hateful speech. 

"Whether a user clicked on a link because they were curious, horrified or engaged was immaterial; the system saw that the post was being widely read, and it promoted it more widely across users’ Facebook pages. The situation in Myanmar was a deadly experiment in what could happen when the internet landed in a country where a social network became the primary, and most widely trusted, source of news.” 

In 2017, at least 25,000 Rohingya were murdered and up to a million fled the country. Facebook wasn’t responsible, but it certainly helped foster the atmosphere when such actions were viewed by most in Myanmar as justified.

Conflicts of interest

The role of Facebook in generating anger against other minorities, principally immigrants, in the USA during the 2016 presidential election is well documented. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t personally anti-immigrant, far from it. He is a self-proclaimed liberal, but the ethos of the company he oversees is to refrain from interfering with anything that might impact on engagement with the platform. 

Disinformation is usually designed to heighten negative emotions – nobody spreads lies to make people laugh or feel better about themselves – and negative emotions, principally anger, are what keep users on Facebook and engaged longer. More money from advertisers, more growth for Mr Zuckerberg’s company.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Frances Haugen said. 

“And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.” 

Among the revelations Ms Haugen made about her time in the company was the suppression of research that showed the negative impact that the image-based network Instagram has on teenage girls.

A presentation slide in 2019 said: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls”. 

And said teenagers blamed Instagram for increased levels of anxiety and depression. Further research in 2020 found 32% of teenage girls said when they felt bad about their bodies Instagram made them feel worse.

Mark Zuckerberg denies all this. He presents himself as a pioneer intent on improving lives. He might have stepped right out of the iconic 1970s add for Coca-Cola which used the song 'I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing'. 

In this pitch, his main focus is bettering humankind by bringing us all together on one platform. In reality, he is focused on growth, which means money, and Frances Haugen is only the latest of a long line of people who have seen into the heart of Facebook and been repulsed by its moral bankruptcy.

Frances Haugen: “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook." Picture: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via AP
Frances Haugen: “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook." Picture: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via AP

In the 1960s, tobacco companies were unmasked as having suppressed research that showed the damage done by cigarettes.

Governments around the world, led by the USA, slowly began fighting back against the industry’s huge power. Some have made comparisons between the turning of the tide against Big Tobacco and this week’s testimony before the US senate.

Time will tell, but one difference is that the power of major corporations has grown exponentially in recent decades and Big Tech is at the heart of this advance. Whether politicians have the will to act, not to mind the power, remains to be seen. 

Social media, led by the likes of Facebook, was a huge innovation that exercised largely positive change on how we live in so many different ways. Those days are long gone. 

Without serious intervention from national governments and international alliances, major damage is going to continue to be done in the name of amassing wealth for a man who still insists he just wants to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

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