What a week to be working in social media.
If you manage social media channels for your nonprofit, if you are on them in your personal life, or even if you just pay attention to the news, then you have undoubtedly heard about Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower.
I’m not going to debate the merits of her claims – all of the findings and files and memos that she leaked were written by Facebook executives and their very own internal research team. The validity of the information that she brought to the SEC and to Congress is not up for debate.
The claim here is that, as Haugen says, Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.
“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer,” she said, “but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
I should say that I don’t think quitting full stop is an option for many nonprofits, and for many marginalized communities who rely on the platform to communicate and organize.
But what to do next with this information? That’s where true introspection and contemplation comes in.
Many of you will say “Oh really Julia you are so naïve, did you really think that Facebook had your best interests at heart?” I mean, I’m not stupid. But I’m not entirely cynical ethier.
The merits and benefits of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are topics that I talk about on the regular with my clients and students. Facebook is a trillion dollar business.
Just 17 years old, it has 2.8 billion users, which is 60% of all internet connected people on earth. Last year, the social media giant brought in $86 billion across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and other properties.
It answers to its shareholders, not to its users, and certainly not to nonprofits. We don’t own the content we publish on Facebook, and a common refrain from fundraisers is that we don’t get the data about the people who give to us.
So, no, I don’t think we are going into this Facebook Instagram relationship with rose-colored glasses. But we also have to recognize the symbiotic relationship we all seem to have with one or more of these platforms, including WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is the most popular global mobile messenger app worldwide with approximately two billion monthly active users, outranking Facebook Messenger at 1.3 billion and WeChat at 1.2 billion users. Following Facebook and YouTube, it is the third most popular social network worldwide. Billions rely on it to connect with international
Reporter Aura Bogado wrote on Twitter “The repercussions of WhatsApp being down in The Rest Of The World are vast and devastating. It’s like the equivalent of your phone and the phones of all of your loved ones being turned off without warning. The app essentially functions as an unregulated utility.”
And Instagram? Yeesh. I have a 12-year-old daughter – who asks me weekly if she can get on Instagram.
Facebook’s own research says that 13.5% of teenage girls say that Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse. 17% of teen girls say that Instagram makes eating disorders worse.
Facebook said just last week that it’s going to hold off on plans to make an Instagram for younger users.
I get chills and a stomach ache just thinking about this.
What does it all mean, and where do we go from here?
I’m going to tell you what I found and what I think:
The question that I am getting left and right, and one that I have posed in my Facebook Group Nonprofit Social Media Storytelling and on my Facebook Page – Are you planning on leaving Facebook and Instagram?
Here’s what I think:
Facebook never mentally moved past the stage where it had to show growth and financial viability to its venture capital investors. At early stages they had to show constant, relentless growth or else they’d lose their next round of VC funding.
Apple made the transition for example – it now behaves more responsibly. They are still a ruthless global capitalist enterprise, let’s be clear, but they’re a more responsible corporate citizen.
For example, it took Apple threatening to remove the Facebook apps from the app store, over Facebook’s lack of dealing with human trafficking on their site, for Facebook to take action.
Facebook will not do anything that sacrifices growth in user engagement, ever. Even if that growth means allowing Groups be used to organize massacres and sell children into prostitution in Saudi Arabia.
In 2018, the United Nations also found that Facebook played a “determining role” enabling Myanmar’s genocide against Rohingya Muslims.
However, I do agree with Haugen that breaking up Facebook isn’t the answer.
Splitting Instagram and WhatsApp off from Facebook will not solve the most complicated issues about how to moderate speech on any individual platform.
Shutting it down isn’t the answer. There are other social media sites, and something else will pop up.
Breaking up or shutting down Facebook wouldn’t solve the main problem: the algorithms themselves.
“A company with such frightening influence over so many people, over their deepest thoughts, feelings, and behavior needs real oversight,” Haugen said. “These systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up.”
Quitting, for many nonprofits, isn’t the answer.
They have found a way to connect with supporters and to raise money!
A February 2020 update said people have now raised over $3 billion for personal fundraisers and nonprofit causes on Facebook.
I don’t think quitting full stop is an option for many nonprofits, and for many marginalized communities who rely on the platform to communicate with each other.
So what is the solution?
Government oversight is key. Congress can establish a new regulatory agency that would be able to audit Facebook’s algorithms.
If you split up Facebook, this would create three separate entities each with the same challenges—and fewer resources to solve those problems.
Transparency is a critical starting point for effective regulation, and full access to data for research not directed by Facebook.
It’s not as sexy as splitting it all up or making Zuck resign, but leading social media experts agree that it is a first step to meaningfully regulate Facebook.
This includes the algorithm. Go under the hood, as my own Senator Ed Markey said – of the algorithmic black box.
These algorithms control the speech of over 2 billion people and need to be further explored and they need to be regulated.
What about Section 230? Section 230 — the landmark internet law that shields tech companies from being sued for most kinds of illegal content their users post on their platforms.
It exempts online companies from being sued for allowing users to post whatever they want so they can’t be sued if they let a user post hate speech. They can remove it if they want, but don’t have to.
And the second part is that online companies can’t be sued by users when they take down their posts.
So you can’t sue Facebook if they carry hate speech that results in your loved one being killed in a riot, and, if on the off-chance Facebook does take down the hate speech, the person who posted it also can’t sue them.
Haugen says: “Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient.
While important, they will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive traits of Facebook except for Facebook.
We can afford nothing less than full transparency.”
So I leave it up to you. We all need to make personal and professional decisions here.
Should we leave the platforms en masse?
Should we call on our elected officials to create regulations that would save lives and protect the vulnerable?
You’ve heard what I have to say. Now I want to hear from you. Tag me on Twitter @JuliaCSocial and let me know what you think the future holds for Facebook. Are you using it? Or not? And why?
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