A Reckoning for Big Tech

Businessman standing in server room. This is entirely 3D generated image.

Starting in mid-September, The Wall Street Journal began what would become a nine-part series based on leaked documents from social media giant Facebook. The information, mostly internal data collection and conversations among employees, painted the social media giant as a profit-hungry organization well aware of a wide range of social harms its platforms cause and having little interest in addressing them.

The company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has repeatedly testified before Congress and the public of its valiant efforts to monitor and root out dangerous speech and to manage misinformation and a slew of other negative uses of its forums. Since public scrutiny increased, Facebook hired thousands of content reviewers intended to flag and remove statements that violated company polices. In 2020, Facebook launched an oversight board intended to be an independent body that judged issues like the company’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump following the Capitol Riots.

Yet, the documents obtained by the Journal revealed that whatever steps the company took were little more than window dressing that massively under-addressed problems like criminal activity, use by extremist groups, sowing social divisions, and misinformation, and that it largely ignored harmful mental health and social impacts among young people — especially on its photo and video sharing network, Instagram.

As the series came to a close, the source of the documents revealed her identity as Frances Haugen, a 37-year-old data analyst with degrees from Harvard and 15 years of experience with other tech giants before being recruited by Facebook in 2019.

“I’ve seen a bunch of social networks and it was substantially worse at Facebook than anything I’d seen before,” she told a “60 Minutes” interviewer. “Imagine you know what’s going on inside of Facebook and you know no one on the outside knows. I knew what my future looked like if I continued to stay inside of Facebook, which is person after person after person has tackled this inside of Facebook and ground themselves to the ground.”

Miss Haugen testified before the Senate’s Commerce Committee where she discussed information revealed in the series as well as what she presented as the company’s role in “fanning ethnic violence” in Third World nations like Myanmar and Ethiopia.

Facebook has pushed back against the picture that emerged from Miss Haugen’s claims and tried to discredit her as lacking expertise.

“Many of the claims don’t make any sense. I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” said Mr. Zuckerberg. “We’re committed to doing the best work we can, but at some level the right body to assess trade-offs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress.”

Yet, Congress does not seem poised to take a sympathetic approach to the social media giant.

“It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products, it has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” said Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. “We now know that while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately Facebook researchers and experts have been ringing the alarm for years.”

Outrage was bipartisan and the committee’s ranking Republican, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, said, “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users.”

Keeping Young Noses to the Screen

Of the public charges against Facebook, one that has provoked much outcry is the extent of the deleterious effect its platforms have on teenage girls, with the heaviest blame placed on Instagram. Documents showed that the company’s own data said that 13.5% of teens said the forum makes suicidal thoughts worse and 17% said it makes eating disorders worse.

The same data also show that negative feelings drive young users to spend more time with the company’s forums giving it little incentive to address problems.

Even in less extreme instances, both prior and new data showed that Instagram and other social media networks encouraged harmful behaviors and fueled unhealthy pursuits of popularity.

Tauhid Zaman, an associate professor of operations management at Yale University, said that the effect Instagram has on users, especially teenage girls, is inherent to the nature of the platform.

“When I heard these reports that it undermines girls’ confidence and bullies them and shames them, I said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s how it’s designed, it’s made to promote a certain image and a girl that sees that all the time will be affected,’” he said.

The revelations have moved the company to pause rolling out a new brand of Instagram aimed specifically at younger children.

David Monahan, campaign manager for Fairplay, a group that advocates against marketing and online forums that target children, said that the dangers of social media to youth were well known before Miss Haugen’s revelations, but not the extent to which Facebook had ignored its own findings.

“Experts have known for years that this was a ticking timebomb. Kids are using screens more and more and that’s by design because these companies are trying to attract them,” he said. “I think the whistleblower revealed specifics that we all suspected but did not know that Facebook had in its hands. They were not just burying their heads in the sand, they were burying data, they were aware of these problems and were hiding it and even when Congress asked them, they were not forthcoming.”

As Facebook pauses its development of its new platform slated to be titled “Kids,” the discussion over the wisdom of encouraging children to spend more time in front of screens has received increased attention. Some of the leaked documents showed that the company took an increased interest in tapping into preteens as a way of locking in users at an earlier stage with the goal of winning them from competing online forums such as TikTok and Snapchat.

Mr. Monahan said that, aside from specific risks to physical and mental health that social media posed to young people, it has had a broader negative effect on childhood development. His organization has led a campaign arguing that “the safest version of Instagram for children is no Instagram at all,” positing that no changes to the “Kids” platform could adequately address concerns.

“Their algorithms are designed to collect users’ data and find their interests. They use all kinds of manipulative tactics to get them to stay online and see more ads. Adults have a hard enough time pulling themselves away and the younger you are the harder it is,” he said. “For kids especially, though, this is displacing them from important activities like being outside, playing ball, making friends in real life. They need these things as part of a healthy development and instead they’re on devices getting indoctrinated into a skewed vision of what’s important in life.”

 

Bringing out the Worst

Among the revelations in the documents revealed by the whistleblower were that, despite years of claims by Mr. Zuckerberg and others in the company that they are doing their utmost to rid their forums of use by terrorists and criminal elements, both continue to be mainstays of their channels. In 2014, ISIS’ effective use of social media in recruiting new members and inspiring attacks around the world gained wide attention. Even as tech companies took steps to cancel the terror group’s accounts, in many cases they were swiftly replaced by new ones.

facebook whistleblower
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questions former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen during a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this month. (Drew Angerer/Pool via AP)

Use of forums by drug cartels and those seeking to illegally traffic labor from Third World countries were topics highlighted by the Journal’s series.

Hate speech and incitement to violence are other areas Facebook has claimed to have taken an aggressive approach to curb. Yet, documents revealed that an internal study showed only 3% to 5% of hate speech and six tenths of one percent (0.006) of violence and incitement being addressed by content checkers.

John Bryden serves as executive director and senior research scientist at the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University and has closely studied Twitter and other platforms used for the spread of dangerous ideas and misinformation. He said that while companies are not trying to encourage nefarious activity, the algorithms and setup model can lend themselves to being effective tools for terrorists and other extremist causes.

“Accounts cluster into groups that share similar opinions which are rarely challenged; this was something that Daesh [ISIS] was able to take advantage of on Twitter,” he said. “There are many opportunities for bad actors to manipulate. They can open several coordinated accounts and spread a certain narrative. One can become a popular figure on a platform and gain a lot of followers.”

“The main point of an algorithm is to recommend content to people that they will find inviting and make them want to stay on a site,” added Dr. Bryden. “They are not inherently bad, the intention is not to spread misinformation, but because they have a bias towards popularity these ideas get shown to more people.”

Increasingly in recent years, social media have been high on the list of causes for increased political and social polarization and tensions. Again, algorithms that group those of like opinions together and reward provocative content were blamed for pushing more of the public to more extreme and more angry positions.

“The feedback loop rewards content that gets a lot of clicks and that is usually drawn by people expressing strong sentiments, especially negative ones,” said Professor Zaman.

Professor Zaman said that his research about online political speech beginning in 2016 showed a glaring uptick in “toxicity.”

“The rhetoric on social media has gotten much more extreme,” he said. “I looked at bots in 2016 and you got a spectrum of hardcore Hillary supporters, hardcore Trump supporters and a lot in between. When I did the same thing on the first impeachment in 2020 the middle was gone.”

 

Blowing the Whistle

Years before Miss Haugen revealed the trove of internal documents, the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) partnered with another organization and a law firm to assist several anonymously filed petitions to the SEC exposing Facebook’s profiting off illegal activities including drug sales, terror financing, and human trafficking. Claims assert that by turning a blind eye to these activities and hiding information from the public the company is putting shareholders at risk.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Siri Nelson, executive director of NWC, said that Miss Haugen’s claims that the company is highly resistant to internal suggestions to addressing harm it is doing, and its recent attempts to discredit her, are consistent with her experiences with other whistleblowers.

“There are definitely some industries that respect whistleblowers, however, big tech is not one of them,” she said. “They are very insular, lean on internal reporting and use it in a manner that gives the impression of protecting those that call out problems, but which in reality makes them vulnerable to mistreatment and stigmatization.”

Big tech prides itself on its progressive approach to business. Miss Haugen’s testimony to Congress said that some aspects of its corporate setup had contributed to the problems she seeks to highlight. One aspect is the company’s “flat” organizational approach with the overwhelming number of employees working in one huge room with few levels of managers, which she said fails to delegate sufficient power and leadership to respond to problematic practices sufficiently.

NWC’s Siri Nelson said that she felt big tech’s self-confidence in their mission had made it harder for companies to work to correct negative outcomes of their forums.

“Facebook presents itself as a wonderful place where everybody can connect and share the same moral values, but we know that’s not the case and that their platforms are overrun with negative content that they can’t control,” she said.

Suggestions abound as to what government should do to address the problems highlighted by Miss Haugen’s revelations. The issue has lent additional weight to calls to break up Silicon Valley giants. Facebook, Inc. owns not only its namesake forum and Instagram, but several other popular networks including WhatsApp. Experts and officials have called for each to be broken into separate companies. There have long been calls for a far more thorough regulation regime and possibly a government agency dedicated to policing the online world.

A major impediment to acting on these ideas is the political influence that tech giants hold over Washington, employing a small army of lobbyists to make its case to elected officials.

“There are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry,” said Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar at the recent Senate hearing. “We have done nothing when it comes to making the algorithms more transparent, allowing for the university research that you referred to. Why? Because Facebook and the other tech companies are throwing a bunch of money around this town, and people are listening to them.”

The influence goes beyond lobbying efforts. A New York Post story reported that Mark Zuckerberg had spent over $419 million in 2020 for campaigns to turn out the vote for Democratic candidates using two intermediary organizations to veil his role. A report by Forbes showed that top Facebook executives had donated $3.9 million to leading Democrat’s campaigns with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker getting the largest donations.

As it has in the past, Facebook still insists that it is actively addressing the issues raised in the whistleblower’s statements. Yet, fewer have confidence the company can be trusted to make the changes on its own.

“They are not going to change anything unless someone forces them to,” said Professor Zaman. “They have no reason to, they’re making too much money.”

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Unsettled

By Dayan Chaim Kohn

The beauty and uniqueness of a human being is his ability to process his thoughts, formulating his own opinions and choosing which of the ideas in his mind to express and how to do so. Though it may seem banal, this is at the core of what separates man from animals, which by nature acts on its every impulse, bereft of an inner world.

The Torah places much emphasis on this fundamental quality of man and much of its outlook and many halachos are intended to preserve this defining aspect of a Jew’s humanity.

To cite one example, the Torah prohibits sharing information heard from another party unless given express permission to do so. Unlike the assumptions of the world at large, halachically, a secret is not defined by explicitly being told that information should be kept in confidence. Just the opposite, the Torah defines all information as private unless one is told that he may share it with others.

In a broader sense, the framework in which Torah was given is predicated on this aim of preserving the integrity of man’s distinctive inner world. Torah Sheb’al Peh — the Oral Law, as its name suggests — was intended to remain an oral tradition. The Mishnah and later the Gemara and other core works of Chazal were only committed to writing when it was determined that failing to do so would result in their being forgotten.

Even so, Torah Sheb’al Peh was written in a terse style that did not turn it into a cold book of law, which allows for the mind of every Jew who studies it to develop his own personal understanding of it. This is not merely a strategy of maintaining a vibrant scholarly tradition; it is at the essence of a Jew’s relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. This independence of thought is an indispensable element of what allows a Jew to formulate the essence of his own being and the purpose of his life.

The polar opposite of Torah’s focus on preserving man’s inner world is the phenomenon of social media. We have long become accustomed to the privacy of individuals being invaded by news outlets, as part of a political struggle, obsession with a public figure, or just to create an entertaining spectacle.

Social media extended this invasion into people’s private sphere to every individual that utilizes it, turning their inner world outward. What technology companies touted as phenomenal breakthroughs in communication and the dissemination of information has long proven to be one of the most effective agents for dehumanization.

Through its constant bombardment of information, pictures and, often, pure drivel, a person connected to social media channels sees his mind become dominated and molded by the thoughts and influence of others. He loses his ability to approach matters with any real level of depth and the uniquely human trait of individual approach is sacrificed.

Moreover, connection to these channels robs a person of his innocence and exposes him to material and attitudes that were once anathema to him. Yet now he is desensitized, and they occupy a comfortable place
in his mind.

This is true for anyone, but especially as Torah Jews who take care to live in communities that reflect our values, social media takes us out of our carefully guarded world and thrusts us into the world of cyberspace. That digital universe is a sphere of existence unto itself, which, as the world at large is quickly noticing, is not a pretty one.

This deterioration is fed on both sides of a person’s interaction with social media. While this phenomenon is certainly not limited to Instagram, that forum’s very name betrays its essence and the core of its destructive nature. Its users become accustomed to instantly sharing any thought or experience they have before taking the time to process it themselves and to make a rational decision whether to share it with others.

Among the tefillos that we recite on Hoshana Rabbah is “hoshanah nefesh m’bahalah — save our nefesh from impetuousness” and finding ourselves in an unsettled state of being. Yishuv hadaas — a settled state of mind — is a prerequisite for rational decision-making. It is a state that the trained and disciplined mind can achieve in almost any circumstance and in many ways the ability to maintain yishuv hadaas is what separates great people from mediocre people. Yet, it is no exaggeration to say that a mind molded by social media is trained never to be in a state of yishuv hadaas.

It does not take much insight to understand that social media is a tool to manipulate those that use it. In my opinion, despite what tech companies would have you believe, it is actually a very primitive tool at that, designed to feed a person a barrage of superficial information and thoughts so as to take away his intellectual independence. As a result, one becomes completely dependent on the views shared on these forums and goes on to serve the political, financial, or other agendas of those on the supplying side of the material in question. Over time such dependency can erode a person’s moral consciousness as well and leave him with values and traits that were once foreign to him.

None of these observations are uniquely Jewish and they should be of grave concern to society at large. Yet, to anyone who subscribes to the fundamentals of Torah belief, the cause for alarm should be multiplied.

If we allow our minds to become the instruments of outside forces, how is it possible for us to even define our true mission in this world, much less live up to the lofty goals of the Torah?

It is shameful that it took a whistleblower to create a national discussion about the dangers that Facebook and other social media companies pose, as the information she has revealed should have been apparent to any intelligent observer. Despite this, however, it is fortunate that events have turned in a way that social media’s perils as well as the deceitfulness and greed of Facebook have been laid open in plain sight.

Now is an opportunity to make an honest accounting of the effects that social media has on the individual and how this impact measures up to what there is to be gained by whether or how one uses it. It is for us to seize this moment to save ourselves from ourselves and not submit our minds to the reign of social media and its manipulators and, in doing so, to remain what man is intended to be.