Will we ever think of Facebook the way we now think of cigarettes?
Or is the company more like a gun lobby? Perhaps the alcohol industry fits better. As we shall see, all three comparisons make sense, given the deadly harm this company causes. Except that these parallels actually downplay the problem.
After all, none of them allow us to appreciate the scale and power of this corporation. That reality became particularly evident this week when a six-hour outage confirmed that 3 billion people around the world have come to depend on Facebook, along with its WhatsApp and Instagram apps, as the place to do business and learn about the world. Facebook may pretend to be just a place for friends and family to “connect”, but it is much more than that, and much more dangerous.
Hence the comparison with a tobacco company. In the early 1960s, scientists at one cigarette manufacturer, Reynolds, concluded that the evidence that smoking was linked to cancer was “overwhelming”. Meanwhile, researchers at rival firm Philip Morris were compiling a list of dozens of carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. But guess what – none of this information has been made public. On the contrary, for more than three decades the tobacco industry refused to acknowledge any evidence of harm from smoking, even though its own research said just the opposite.
Now listen to the testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who this week exposed herself as the whistleblower behind a series of crushing revelations published originally by the Wall Street Journal. One internal document from 2019 reveals that Facebook’s own research showed that Instagram – which is rife with photos of slim, trim bodies – is psychologically toxic, especially for young women. “We are exacerbating body image problems in one in three teenage girls,” the paper said, adding that teens themselves “blame Instagram for rising levels of anxiety and depression”. Did Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg acknowledge this finding when he addressed Congress in March? No. Instead, he said:
“The research we’ve seen shows that using social apps to connect with others can have positive effects on mental health.”
In other words, smoking is good for you.
But if we’re talking about life and death, Facebook’s role is more direct than just psychological harm. Haugen testified that the platform is “fuelling ethnic violence” in Ethiopia, just as it did to devastating effect in Myanmar, where Facebook eventually acknowledged its role as a deadly weapon in a military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority that led to murder, rape and dispossession. Nigerian authorities also say that fake news spread through Facebook is killing people as groups attack each other in retaliation for atrocities that never happened.
Facebook is also aware of these problems, and while it always talks about “learning lessons” and “doing better”, it does too little. Haugen noted that 87% of the money Facebook spends to combat misinformation is directed at English-language content. It’s understandable why, given the pressure on the company from media and politicians in the US over the platform’s toxic role in the 2016 presidential election. But only 9% of Facebook users speak English. Many of the rest live in Africa or Southeast Asia, where Facebook is wreaking havoc.
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