Is Facebook the 21st Century Tobacco Industry? | Jonathan freedland



WShould we one day think of Facebook as we think of cigarettes today? Or is the company more like the gun lobby? The alcohol industry may be the best fit. As we’ll see, there is merit in all three comparisons, given the fatal damage this business has inflicted. Except that these parallels actually underestimate the problem.

For none of them quite attain the scale and power of this one company. This reality was made particularly striking this week, when a six-hour blackout confirmed that 3 billion people worldwide now depend on Facebook, along with its WhatsApp and Instagram properties, as a place to do business and discover the world. world. . Facebook might like to pretend it’s just a place for friends and family to ‘hook up’, but it’s much bigger than that – and much more dangerous.

Hence the comparison with big tobacco. In the early 1960s, scientists at a cigarette manufacturer, Reynolds, concluded that the evidence that smoking was linked to cancer was “crushing”. Meanwhile, researchers at rival firm Philip Morris compiled a list of dozens of carcinogens 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 admit any evidence of the harms of smoking, even though its own research told the exact 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 shocking revelations originally published by the Wall Street Journal. A 2019 internal document shows that Facebook’s own research revealed that Instagram – which is full of lean, toned body photos – is psychologically toxic to young women in particular. “We make body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls,” it read, adding that teenagers themselves “blame Instagram for the increased rates of anxiety and depression.” Did Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admit the discovery when he appeared before Congress in March? He does not have. Instead, he said, “The research we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits.” 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 said the platform “stirs up ethnic violence” in Ethiopia, just as it did with devastating effect in Myanmar, where Facebook ultimately recognized his role as a deadly weapon in an army campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority that has led to murder, rape and dispossession. The Nigerian authorities Likewise, fake news on Facebook is killing people, as groups attack each other in retaliation for atrocities that never happened.

Facebook is aware of these issues as well, and while it always makes the right noise about “learning lessons” and “doing better,” it does too little. Haugen pointed out that 87% of the money Facebook spends on fighting disinformation is spent on English content. You can see why, given media and political pressure, the company was subjected to the United States over the platform’s poisoned role in the 2016 presidential election. But only 9% of Facebook users are English speakers. Most of the rest live in Africa or Southeast Asia, where Facebook is wreaking havoc.

Facebook is so huge, so ubiquitous, it’s easy to become fatalistic about it all: it’s a giant too big to fight to the ground. Boycott calls don’t work: consumers find the platform too useful, advertisers find it too effective. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to do. We are not helpless in the face of Goliath.

On the one hand, there will be more whistleblowers: Haugen was not the first, and she will not be the last. It is clear that the company has recruited ethical people who now feel disgusted by their employer. Moreover, Haugen’s revelations struck a chord with a crucial group: parents who now fear for the safety of their children. Tech Watcher Scott Galloway predicts a movement similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has been successful in pushing politicians to lower the legal blood alcohol limit, in the face of fierce opposition from the beverage industry.

If governments decide to act, there is no shortage of things they could do. A first step is to demand to see inside Facebook’s algorithms, to reveal what the company already knows about itself: that its quest for ever greater “engagement” and growth. means it’s wired to fuel and feed rabies. Facebook knows how to turn off this switch. The leaked documents show that executives were offered fixes that would have calmed the resentment, but they chose not to adopt them.

In the United States, Congress needs to revise Section 230, a bit of legislation that basically covers social media companies in immunity blanket. If newspapers can be sued for libel and manufacturers sued for faulty products, Facebook should be sued for the harm it causes. And, to have a deterrent effect, the fines will have to be, as one anti-Facebook activist put it, “catastrophically huge”. Think of it as the “polluter pays” principle: Facebook pollutes the delivery of information, and it has to pay.

There are other remedies. Break down the giant Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp under antitrust laws. Change the rules on data protection and ownership. And if it turns out that a Facebook executive lied to Congress, charge them with perjury.

In the end, the cigarette companies had to bow to the law. But, thanks to decades of dishonesty and cover-up and their determination to put profits before the safety of people, it has come too late: millions of lives have been lost. This time we can’t wait.


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