Facebook’s Façade: Controversial policies come to light following whistleblower leaks

October 12, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Frances Haugen, former Facebook employee, accuses the company of unethical practices to drive engagement at the expense of user wellbeing and public interest.

What does this mean?

On 5th October 2021, former product manager Frances Haugen who worked in Facebook’s ‘civic integrity’ team testified before the US Senate, after revealing her identity a day before Facebook-owned apps faced a temporary shutdown. Digital Content Next CEO Jason Klint has suggested that this happened to distract from Haugen’s testimonies. Facebook’s algorithm and problematic moderation policies have been called into question following Haugen’s leaks of internal memos and documents she had methodically copied during her time at the company, which is now being released in batches by the Wall Street Journal.

The company has been accused of covering up its own research about audience demographics – particularly statistics on younger users. Policies about hate speech and extremism, and the impact of Facebook-owned Instagram on teen mental health have been labeled inadequate. Facebook has also been criticised for its highly profit-driven business model, and ‘weakening democracy’ through its opaque curation of content using algorithms. One leak even detailed a lawsuit Facebook is facing from its own shareholders.

What's the big picture effect?

Facebook has come under fire for its market-domination attempts and data collection policies. As the leader of the social media market, Facebook can access large amounts of user data, set advertising prices, and conduct crucial research

Over the pandemic, the website has seen a fall in users below the age of 23 – a fact that it has hidden from advertisers in order to charge higher prices promising engagement. The company is currently facing a class-action lawsuit in California for falsifying advertisers’ “potential reach” statements. Additionally, Facebook’s moderation policies applied to high-profile users such as celebrities and politicians differently to drive engagement. Users are also often exposed to violence, extremism, and hate speech – the content generating the most engagement. This was echoed in accusations that held Facebook responsible for enabling the US Capitol riots earlier this year.

Some have dismissed these claims by stating that holding Facebook responsible for inciting violence is merely pointing fingers. Facebook is only able to display that content which its users generate, and to pretend that the website is the root of rising tensions is to ignore the true cause of such conflict. Even so, the company’s prevention policies are notoriously weak, having acted upon “as little as 3-5% of hate” this year.

The company is also facing criticism for not doing enough to address the impact of Instagram on the mental health of young women. This comes shortly after the company postponed plans to create an Instagram alternative for younger users. While a Facebook executive testified that such claims denied the positive impact of Facebook on young women, Haugen alluded to “conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook” to accuse the company of prioritising profit.

The primary concern for users and markets is Facebook’s exploitation of its industry leader status. For users, these scandals are also a reflection of the power held by social media networks to influence our thinking and behaviour. The mere fact that Facebook having technical issues can shut down communication across three of the most popular platforms evidences the dangers of society’s reliance on the company. Regulators have been unable to monitor Facebook due to the company hiding research from the public, thereby preventing authorities from taking action against the website. While Haugen’s testimony has brought light to Facebook’s harmful policies, only time will tell if authorities are able to finally get behind Facebook’s secretive policies and take meaningful action.

Report written by Megha Vinesh

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