It has been a dark day for Facebook, in which a major news organisation – The Atlantic, owned by Steve Jobs’s widow – published the first in a series of what it hopes will be devastating articles about it. On top of that, its now well-known whistleblower, Frances Haugen, gave evidence to a House of Commons committee. And its share price rose by a mere 0.5 per cent or so.
Haugen, who gave similar evidence in Washington DC earlier this month, has one major point to make. It’s the one that everybody knows: Facebook’s algorithms prioritise rage-inducing content over all others and so make the world a hateful place. But she’s been inside, so the difference is that she’s seen it all with her own eyes, and, more to the point, she knows that they know.
This made her evidence curious to watch, at times. She is a data engineer, and she has an MBA from Harvard as well. She’s polished, and self-evidently incredibly smart, and she has considered, in advance, the limits of what she is prepared to say. She has chosen her words with precision, and knows precisely how far she is prepared to go.
And here she was, crisply explaining how when you read something or interact with something on Facebook, the next thing it’ll serve you will be a spicier version of what went before; of how you begin with healthy-eating recipes and end up down a weird rabbit hole of eating disorders.
She was very keen indeed to stress that Facebook is full of “kind, considerate” people, but the “systems” are not set up to make Facebook safer, only more profitable.
And yet, as she did so, around her sat a crescent of MPs, wildly egging her on, desperate to make her content more extreme. At one point, the SNP MP John Nicolson asked her, “Is Facebook malevolent?” Nicolson is a former BBC journalist. He, like almost every other MP on every one of these committees, knows the value of a news line. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, Haugen declined to create the more extreme content her interrogators were so desperate to push her towards. She could not be shifted from her focus that ultimately the systems were to blame, not the people (but the people need to look again at the systems.) It is not “malevolent” but “negligent” and it “will not acknowledge its own power,” she said.
She was, at this point, informed by Nicolson that anybody else listening to what she had said and the evidence she had given would “conclude” that Facebook was indeed malevolent. So that would have to do.
These politicians were listening to Haugan’s evidence to help them improve the drafting of the forthcoming Online Safety Bill, which will be the UK’s most meaningful attempt at social media regulation. It will not be easy, not least because the companies they seek to regulate are now far more powerful than almost any government in the world.
And if clear evidence of that would be required, let us turn to the words of Facebook’s Global Vice President of Public Affairs, one Nick Clegg, as expressed in a company-wide memo this morning. Knowing that a series of damning stories about the company was about to be published, here’s what he had to say, which unfortunately must be quoted at length:
“Social media turns traditional top-down control of information on its head. In the past, public discourse was largely curated by established gatekeepers in the media who decided what people could read, see and digest. Social media has enabled people to decide for themselves – posting and sharing content directly. This is both empowering for individuals – and disruptive to those who hanker after the top-down controls of the past, especially if they are finding the transition to the online world a struggle for their own businesses.”
He led the actual Liberal Democrats once, that guy, and now here he is, not just taking shots at newspapers for daring to publish damning stories about Facebook but, you know, planting the seed of doubt about it, just, you know, flying kites, letting people think for themselves about what their motives might be.
It is enough to make you want to actually throw up. Enough certainly, to drive you to more extreme content.
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