How do you solve a problem like Facebook?

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Facebook – or Meta, as it rebranded itself – is an extremely wealthy and powerful company, with nearly 3 billion monthly active users on its social media platforms and a market valuation of nearly $ 1,000 billion. But these days he has few friends.

Over the past few weeks, the world has gotten a glimpse of Facebook and its almighty algorithm through a mine of confidential internal documents extracted from the company by a former employee, Frances Haugen. Haugen turned over the documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission, then The Wall Street Journal, and now more than a dozen major media companies around the world are sifting through the Facebook Papers. Haugen publicly released Facebook’s dirty laundry on 60 minutes and in testimony before lawmakers in the United States and Great Britain.

The gist of the revelations is that Facebook is doing enormous social and political damage around the world, that it has known it for years in great detail, that it has the tools to at least fix some of these societal ills. , and yet “time and again, despite hearings, its own promises and numerous media presentations, the company has not corrected them”, choosing growth and profit over security, Newspaper reports.

Facebook strongly disputes this characterization, claiming that it has spent billions of dollars and hired 40,000 people to remove misinformation and harmful content from its platform. But the continuous stream of documents from Haugen and other whistleblowers shows that Facebook and its decisions are linked to body image issues in girls, the viral spread of vaccine misinformation, human trafficking, adolescent suicide and increased rage, as well as brutal atrocities in Myanmar. , festering extremism in Afghanistan, political violence in India, widespread abuses against domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates and electoral manipulation around the world.

Some of Facebook’s problems are shared by other social media companies. But Facebook is the giant, and this time it looks like the PR mess is so big that change is coming. But how do you solve a problem like Facebook?

1. Rules

Governments may be the only entities large and powerful enough to force Facebook to change, and since Facebook is an American company, the United States government arguably has a unique responsibility to act. Facebook now says it welcomes the regulation – well, it wants Congress to “start making standard rules for the Internet” – and there is bipartisan legislation that would require Facebook and other social media platforms to warn people. users of algorithms that control the information they see. , and allow them to opt out. Other proposals would deprive Facebook of some of the legal protections it has for content hosted on its platforms.

Before Congress takes any meaningful action, the European Union should enact its digital services law, which would require social media companies to regularly assess risks on its platforms, with external oversight, and impose heavy penalties on them. fines if they do not comply. The UK Parliament is set to vote on an online security bill that would impose a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content – not just illegal content, as in the EU – although political advertisements, politicians and publishers are exempt.

2. Facebook, heal yourself

One of the biggest issues exposed in the Facebook Papers is how its core algorithms feed users with unwanted rage-causing content. The company has been hesitant to change that path towards fury and radicalization, Haugen said, because content that elicits an emotional response keeps users more “engaged,” meaning they spend more time on Facebook and Instagram, and “they make more money”. But the leaked documents “are also full of thoughtful suggestions on how to correct these flaws,” Wired reports.

Most of these suggestions involve removing Facebook’s fixation on engagement and instead feeding their friends’ posts in reverse chronological order, or ranking the content based on quality – like the algorithm. Google’s PageRank search engine – or, as a Facebook engineer suggested in late 2019, “optimize more precisely for good experiences.”

Those suggestions were not adopted, but Facebook is Twittering some of the world’s top experts, Samidh Chakrabarti, the former head of Facebook’s civic integrity team, and it should restructure its chain of command so that data scientists have more power to adopt change, with their research made public “on all issues of societal importance”.

3. Dismantle Facebook, drop Zuckerberg

At the end of the day, “the problem with Facebook is Facebook,” says media specialist Siva Vaidhyanathan. Dan Brahmy, an Israeli social media and disinformation expert, argues that it’s unrealistic to expect a trillion-dollar company like Facebook to voluntarily change such a lucrative, engagement-driven business model. And Politics Chief technology correspondent Mark Scott said “no law in the United States would address this underlying problem” of Facebook prioritizing negative viral content.

The Federal Trade Commission is pursuing an antitrust case against Facebook that could potentially dissolve the company, although at most it splits from Instagram and WhatsApp, leaving the main social network intact. If the Facebook ban is not on the table, “it’s time for new leadership,” former Facebook political advertising monitor Yael Eisenstat said. Time. Zuckerberg is “a king, not a CEO,” Eisenstat added. “He can’t be fired. Normally, in a publicly traded company, the board can fire the CEO, or the shareholders can pressure the CEO to leave. But at Facebook, there is has no pressure mechanism. “

4. Let Facebook do it

Maybe the free market will solve Facebook’s problem. For all of Zuckerberg’s power, he hasn’t been able to reverse Facebook’s waning engagement and stagnant growth in major US and European markets. “Worse, the company is losing the attention of its most important population – adolescents and young people – with no clear way to get it back”, PA reports. “Unless Facebook finds a way to turn the tide, its population will continue to age and young people will find even less reason to sign up, threatening monthly user numbers critical to selling ads,” its financial engine .

“Good luck with that,” The weekwrites Joël Mathis. “The whistleblower’s revelations could lead Congress to regulate Facebook or even dismantle the company,” he said. “But the real threat to the power and influence of Facebook in our lives could be all those teens who think Snapchat is cooler.”

5. Cut Facebook on a human scale

A small number of “super guests” make up a disproportionate amount of Facebook’s spam belly, Wired reports. Limiting the number of invites and friend requests that users can send would help Facebook limit dangerous movements before they go viral. Or maybe we need to give some more thought to downsizing Facebook, says Ian Bogost at Atlantic. After all, limiting social media is something we already accept – Twitter’s 280 characters, or YouTube’s time limits – so “what if, for example, you could post to Facebook just once a day, a week?” or per month? Bogost suggests. “Or if, after an hour or a day, the post expired, like Snapchat?” Or, after a certain number of views, or when it has reached a certain geographical distance from its origins, it self-destructs? It wouldn’t stop. bad actors to be bad, but that would reduce their ability to exude that nastiness into the public sphere. “

Facebook can withstand the blow to its commitment cash cow, but “such a constraint would be technically trivial to implement” and it would be universal and politically neutral, Bogost writes. “Wouldn’t it be better if fewer people posted less stuff, less frequently, and a smaller audience saw it?”

Probably not for Facebook. But if the Facebook Papers are correct, humanity might be better off.


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