Facebook critics have long argued that the social media giant is bad for consumers, bad for children, and bad for the country – a serial abuser of its users’ privacy, an amplifier of misinformation, and far too much of a tool. practice to turn Americans against one. another.
It turns out they were right, and Facebook knew it.
Last week the company’s record caught up with it in Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who testified before a Senate committee after handing damning company documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and Wall Street. Newspaper.
Haugen told senators that when chief executive Mark Zuckerberg had a choice between making Facebook, Instagram and other platforms his company owns more secure or increasing income, he almost always chose the money.
âThe management of the company knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but will not make the necessary changes because they put their astronomical profits ahead of people,â she said.
The documents supported her. In 2020, Zuckerberg learned that Facebook’s algorithm, the secret formula that promotes content to users, unwittingly reinforces “misinformation, toxicity, and violent content.” Fixing the issue could cause users to spend less time on the platform, so it decided not to take action, a note from the company said.
That of a CEO who often quotes his company’s moralizing mission statement: “Empower people to build community and bring the world together.” “
If that’s Zuckerberg’s goal, he seems to be failing. On the bright side, he made a fortune estimated at around $ 120 billion.
Haugen focused on the many ways Facebook and Instagram have targeted children under 13 as “valuable but untapped audiences.”
One of the documents she published showed the company knew that using Instagram often produced emotional damage: “We make body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls,” he said. declared.
Rarely has a whistle produced such rapid results.
Facebook announced late last month that it was delaying the rollout of Instagram Kids, a new service designed for tweens.
But the company still drew a surprisingly bipartisan stream of criticism from senators ranging from Richard Blumenthal, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut, to Marsha Blackburn, a pro-Trump Republican from Tennessee.
Blumenthal, who has long sought tighter social media regulation, said Haugen’s disclosures “could be a turning point.”
âThere seems to be a critical mass [in Congress] now interested in doing something meaningful, âhe told me.
âThe revelations about how Facebook is profiting from the evil it does and how it has sought to cover up this evil are so powerfulâ¦ and the evidence is so visible,â he said, referring to the mass of documents published by Haugen.
The other reason is the emphasis on harm to children. âThat’s what really brings this powerful two-party coalition together: child protection,â he said.
Parents struggle every day to keep their children’s Internet use under control. This is a tabletop issue that could generate millions of votes across the country – and across the political spectrum.
Blumenthal and other Democrats have a long list of measures they would like to take, including changes to the law that relieves internet platforms of responsibility for the content they distribute (known as Section 230) and may -being the creation of a new federal regulator to monitor the Internet. .
Republicans, unsurprisingly, are less enthusiastic about the big regulatory changes.
OK, big steps are difficult. Try to take small ones.
Here are three, each of which could attract bipartisan support:
– Fund a new digital privacy office at the Federal Trade Commission, which already has the power to oversee how internet platforms use their customers’ data, but only has a small staff to tackle the problem .
– Update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998 to give parents some control over how websites track their children’s activities and provide a ‘eraser button’ to allow parents remove content that their children post;
– Force Facebook and other platforms to be more transparent about the algorithms they use and to give users more control over how content is directed to them;
Another that should be passed, but will not be: the Honest Ads Act, a bill that would require online political ads to reveal who paid them, in the same way as ads on TV and radio. do. (Republicans don’t like the idea, apparently because they want to retain the ability to deploy “black money” from undisclosed sources.)
There’s a good reason the public treats Congress even less than the media: They never seem to do much, even on the few issues where there is broad consensus.
This is one of those problems. It’s an opportunity for lawmakers to improve their position in the eyes of voters – and to make the internet safer for their children, grandchildren and everyone else. Don’t let him slip away.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Â© 2021 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.