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This is the most important moment in the history of Facebook. Hyperbole, perhaps, but only slightly.
A former product manager on Facebook, Frances Haugen, imprisoned US senators during a hearing on Tuesday with a nuanced diagnosis that the company must be saved from itself – for everyone’s best.
What felt different from Facebook’s 4 million previous scandals and congressional insults was Haugen’s focus on what she sees as the company’s fundamental shortcomings in technical designs and business organization, and the messy but sophisticated discussions that take place outside of Facebook to improve the company.
Haugen said Facebook stretched too thin to effectively confront injuries such as ethnic violence and human trafficking that had been linked to activity on its apps. She dissected the ways in which Facebook’s fixation on getting us to spend more time online exacerbated our worst impulses. And she hammered the message that the public should not be kept in the dark about what Facebook knew about its impact on us and our world.
The image, which emerged from recent Wall Street Journal reporting and Haugen’s media interviews, was not of Facebook as a cartoon-like James Bond villain. It was a company that could not control the machines it built, but refused to accept that reality.
“Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop that they can’t get out of,” Haugen told senators.
Some of what Haugen and Facebook critics have said about the company is probably overrated. And much of what Haugen said was not new. But she is a laser-focused messenger at a time when those in power are ready to stop arguing and ask: What now? What needs to be done to maximize the good of Facebook and minimize the harm?
There are no magic corrections, but Haugen and many others have offered great suggestions for what to try.
The most compelling idea from Haugen was that “engagement-based ranking” is an inherited sin for Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest and other popular apps. When computers prioritize what we see online, based on what is likely to catch us and keep us around longer, they tend to love the most daring or extreme views and nubbing people to post more of the same.
Haugen essentially proposed turning off the computer algorithms and getting more of the Internet to pull toward designs like those iMessage or earlier versions of Facebook and Instagram that showed posts in chronological order.
Kate Klonick, who has researched online expression policies at Internet companies, wrote in The New York Times that Facebook could redesign its sites to optimize holistic goals for the good things it offers. Instead of focusing on metrics, e.g. What posts are likely to get lots of shares or likes can look at what is likely to get you to participate in a protest or donate to a charity.
Haugen and others have recommended changing U.S. law to hold Facebook accountable for actual damages, including terrorist acts, as a result of posts distributed by the company’s computer systems to people’s feeds.
In a recent interview, Haugen also mentioned the idea of government officials overseeing Facebook from within, similar to Federal Reserve examiners for large banks. She also backed the idea of rules to force Facebook to work with researchers who want to study the company’s effects on users.
And Haugen suggested that many of Facebook’s worst moments, including its social network used to love ethnic violence, may be the result of having too few people to control its ambitions. Should Facebook be forced to do less, like leaving countries, unless the company devotes more resources to them and establishes cultural competence?
There are plenty of reasons to feel pessimistic. Facebook in essence told Congress – “YOU tell us what to do.” Still, U.S. lawmakers and regulators have done little to tell Facebook how they can better manage apps used by billions of people.
Facebook has correctly said that it strives to continually improve its apps and that it is a difficult exercise in trade-offs. Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday rejected the (simplified) notion that his company chooses profits over people’s lives and well-being, and that the company ignores ideas for improvement.
Perhaps none of the ideas thrown around repairing Facebook are better than the status quo. But what felt fresh from Haugen was a message of hope: We need the best from Facebook, and we need to work together to make it better.
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