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More Commentary: Evidence is clear that Facebook's self-regulation is an abysmal failure
More Commentary

More Commentary: Evidence is clear that Facebook's self-regulation is an abysmal failure

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The congressional testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that it was always unrealistic to expect that the social media behemoth would ever police itself or place progress over profit.

Now, following Haugen, Sophie Zhang — a second whistleblower and former Facebook data scientist — has said she’s also willing to make a congressional appeal.

Haugen’s leaks regarding the secretive tech company showed us the extent that Facebook’s algorithms promoted disinformation and harmful speech; Zhang, who spoke before the U.K. Parliament on Oct. 18, highlighted how Facebook actively allowed authoritarian governments to post chaos-sewing propaganda — most famously during the 2016 election.

Both whistleblowers’ accounts emphasize the exceptional status we’ve granted to Facebook since its founding.

No other industry has been so trusted to regulate itself. We do not, for example, let pharmaceutical manufacturers roll out new — and potentially fatal — drugs without FDA approval, nor would we give free reign to car companies to experiment with new designs and innovations that could careen drivers off the highway.

Trust in the system provides consumers confidence that they are exposed to minimal harm. But, as we learned from Haugen and Zhang, Facebook disregards the role it plays in inciting political conflict. This is alarming, considering the platform’s ubiquitous use across the country.

Nearly 70% of Americans have a Facebook account, more than any other social media platform with the exception of YouTube. There are 2.8 billion users on Facebook, compared to 1 billion on Instagram and 199 million on Twitter. Even as Instagram appeals more to younger people, it has far fewer users than Facebook, its parent company since 2012.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested a need for regulation many times in the last few years, but his vision resembles more of a self-regulation than a truly independent, autonomous process that would remove profits and minimize bias in evaluating actions.

Facebook is now trying to undermine Haugen, pegging her as a low-level employee who is misrepresenting the situation. Given her former position as a data scientist and product manager, it’s unlikely that her allegations can be so easily dismissed.

Facebook is also facing a legal challenge on the Cambridge Analytica leaks of 2018. The lawsuit, filed by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, alleges that Facebook knowingly misled up to 87 million users on the privacy of its software as their data was being obtained by the British political consulting firm.

Mark Zuckerberg was recently added to this lawsuit, meaning that he could now be found personally liable, both financially and legally, for the data breach.

On Monday, a consortium of 17 U.S. news organizations began publishing a trove of documents — based on Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission — that are collectively called “the Facebook Papers.” So far, they’ve shed more light on Facebook’s inability to constrain hate speech and the spread of misinformation in non-English-speaking countries, as well its inability to stop its platform from being used for criminal activities such as human trafficking.

This increased attention on Facebook’s misdeeds is a good start toward reigning in the social media giant because, as Haugen put it, the company “can change but is clearly not going to do so on its own.”

Laura Merrifield Wilson is an associate professor of political science at University of Indianapolis.

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