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Facebook's cracks are showing

Facebook's cracks are showing

Good morning! This Wednesday, Frances Haugen brought data and details to the Senate hearing, Microsoft thinks the PC rules, and YouTube wants to wrangle the podcasts.

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The Big Story

What happens to Facebook now?

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen had her day in Congress yesterday. In the process, she prompted many lawmakers, who have so far failed to rein in the platform, to say they were newly determined to do something about the company.

What lawmakers can actually deliver is up in the air, but Haugen's testimony went beyond a series of damaging reports on Facebook that she contributed to, adding more details and putting data on existing concerns.

  • Haugen addressed social media addiction, saying Facebook studies a metric called "problematic use," which occurs when users report they can't control their use even when it materially hurts their health, school work or other aspects of their lives.
  • "[5%] to 6% of 14-year-olds have the self-awareness to admit [to] both those questions," Haugen said, adding that the peak of such self-reports occurred at that age. She suggested, however, that those figures underestimate the true scale of the problem.

The hearing focused on the safety of kids and teens. Haugen was quick to point out she didn't work specifically on those teams, and Facebook attempted to discredit her testimony on that basis. She made clear, however, that she directly drew her conclusions from Facebook's own research.

  • Facebook likes to claim that kids under 13 aren't on the platform, simply because they're not allowed to be — even as the company touts its success in removing tweens and young kids. But, Haugen said, research "discovers things like up to 10[%] to 15% of 10-year-olds … may be on Facebook or Instagram."
  • Even when Facebook has turned on artificial intelligence to curtail certain kinds of content, Haugen said, the systems have a poor track record of actually identifying posts on topics such as COVID-19 misinformation: "It's still in the raw form for 80[%], 90% of even that sensitive content."

Haugen also alleged Facebook misled advertisers who were concerned that their content might end up near problematic posts, in the wake of the George Floyd protests last summer and the Capitol riots.

  • "Facebook said in their talking points that they gave to advertisers, 'We're doing everything in our power to make this safer,' or, 'We take down all the hate speech when we find it,'" she said. "That was not true. They get 3[%] to 5% of hate speech."

And then there are the algorithms that Haugan contends are constantly keeping us tuned in by pushing us toward more extreme content. Facebook's systems, she said, also prioritize the kinds of fabulous-lifestyle posts on Instagram that tend to make teen users feel unhappy by comparison. And algorithmic amplification has long played a role in making wild falsehoods go viral online.

  • Mark Zuckerberg rejected this all in a post last night, saying "mischaracterization" and "a false narrative" were on display in the day's testimony.
  • "At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being," the CEO wrote. "That's just not true." Zuckerberg, who Haugen said had made final calls on some of the decisions she criticized, responded that some of her contentions were nonsensical. Zuckerberg asked, for instance, why Facebook would fund research and then ignore it.

Haugen was asked to outline potential fixes for the platform's many problems. Her overall message to the members of the committee? We might need to make Facebook a little worse to make it a little better.

  • Platforms, including Facebook, have long tried to make user actions as effortless as possible — they remove "friction." But some friction, Haugen suggested, may be a good thing.
  • She also mentioned amending Section 230 — the legal provision that shields online platforms from liability over what users post — so that companies like Facebook have to share in some legal responsibility for what their algorithms promote.
  • Everything is at stake here, including our kids' mental health, and our society's ability to confront COVID-19 and work across political divisions, Haugen said.
  • In addition to changing how Facebook keeps us as devoted users, Haugen stressed the importance of transparency. She called for more opportunities for independent researchers to figure out if the company is truly living up to its public statements to users, investors and lawmakers.

And in the name of further transparency, Sen. Richard Blumenthal signaled what's next: He urged Zuckerberg to come testify, yet again, to answer Haugen's claims.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com.

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

Facebook invested $13B in teams and technology to enhance safety. It's working: We lead the industry in stopping bad actors online. In the past few months, we took down:

  • 1.7B fake accounts
  • 3.8M drugs and firearms sales posts
  • 7.1M terrorism-related posts

Our work to reduce harmful content is never done. We're making our platforms safer.

Learn more

People Are Talking

Sunny Balwani wanted to escape with Elizabeth Holmes, he said in a text message:

  • "We need to commit to each other and get out of this hell so we can live in paradise."
  • Holmes responded: "I commit … completely."

Holmes' lawyer, Lance Wade, blamed Adam Rosendorff (an increasingly key witness) for problems at Theranos:

  • "He appears to almost never have competently done his job. He was incompetent at Theranos, too, and that is the reason many of the failures happened."

On Protocol | Fintech: Tech needs to figure out how to manage user data before regulators get involved, Finicity CEO Steve Smith said:

  • "Either we're going to resolve it, or the regulators are going to resolve it. If we can't get together in a way that actually drives innovation and full data access, then the regulators will just step in and regulate around this."

The Facebook outage showed how people need more choices in the tech market, EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said:

  • "[We] must not rely on a few big players, whoever they are."

Andy Jassy said Amazon and Seattle could use some space:

  • "I'd say the last five years, the city council has become less enamored with business or with Amazon … It's just been rougher."

Making Moves

YouTube is looking for a podcast exec. The site already has millions of podcasts, and YouTube wants someone to lead how they're organized and managed.

The streamer Nickmercs is sticking with Twitch. He signed an exclusive deal with the platform that ensures he'll stay there for a while.

Scroll is joining Twitter Blue. The ad-free subscription platform is folding in about a month and will be worked into the Twitter service.

Carrianna Suiter Kuruvilla is heading to DoorDash to lead federal government relations. She'd previously worked in leadership roles at the Obama-era Department of Labor.

In Other News

  • Windows 11 is here. It's Microsoft's first big Windows update in years, and it includes a redesign of the Start menu and new buttons for organizing app windows, among other changes. It's all part of Microsoft's push to remind us that the PC is alive and kicking.
  • Twitch may have been hacked. If the leak is real (and we don't know for sure yet, but it looks legit so far), it includes code from Amazon's unreleased Steam competitor, lots of details on how much money creators make, and all of Twitch's source code.
  • On Protocol: Ifeoma Ozoma created a guide for other whistleblowers. It includes everything from cost-benefit calculations to resources for support and protection.
  • Apple released a short film honoring Steve Jobs on the 10th anniversary of his death yesterday, as well as a personal statement from his family. The film includes photos, videos and notable quotes from Jobs.
  • Messaging apps got a boost from the Facebook blackout. Companies like Discord, Telegram and Signal said they received tons of new users during the outage.
  • Apple Health is struggling, sources told Business Insider. On top of the health group's series of high-level departures, employees said those who raise concerns about the division have faced negative treatment.
  • IBM settled a pay discrimination case. The company will pay female program managers thousands of dollars in back-pay and interest after an investigation found they were paid less than their male counterparts.

One More Thing

Facebook's never-ending dilemma

Facebook has had a tough week. But many of the issues popping up for the platform aren't necessarily new; people have been asking questions about misinformation and other harms of social media for years. Just watch the 2018 PBS documentary "The Facebook Dilemma."

The documentary is broken into two parts and includes tons of interviews with people like former Facebook VPs, reporters and privacy advocates. It might be several years old, but the arguments made in the doc remain relevant.

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

We've more than quadrupled our safety and security teams to 40,000 in the last 5 years to stop bad actors and remove illicit content. It's working: In just the past few months, we took down 1.7 billion fake accounts & 7.1 million terrorism-related posts. But our work to reduce harmful and illicit content on our platforms is never done. We're working to help you connect safely.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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