Q&A: Facebook Whistleblower confirms professor’s long-standing claims
Having written a book, “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”, as well as a wide assortment of published articles, and commenting to media around the world on what he thinks are the dangers of Facebook, perhaps no one in the world was as interested in watching “60 Minutes” Sunday night as University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan.
During the TV show, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen slammed the company for what she argued as prioritizing self-interest – especially profits – over self-interest. which is good for the public.
Haugen quit Facebook last May following the company’s decision to dismantle its unit, which was tasked with combating disinformation on the platform. Armed with the evidence she had gathered before leaving Facebook, Haugen exposed for “60 minutes” what she believed to be specific cases of wrongdoing and deception.
“[It] was the most succinct and compelling Facebook indictment I have ever seen, “Vaidhyanathan said,” and I posted a few indictments on my end – but not as effectively.
“The substance of his critiques was well known and already documented in scholarship and journalism. But it was gratifying to learn that Facebook’s internal research supports everything I wrote in my book. I imagine as excited as I felt watching her on Sunday, [Facebook CEO and co-founder] Mark Zuckerberg felt a deep sense of dread in his stomach.
UVA Today caught up with Vaidhyanathan – whose book was released in 2018 and is available in paperback – to learn more about his reaction.
Q. What do you think is the most important thing we learned about Facebook as a result of Haugen’s story?
A. The key to Ms. Haugen’s revelations through the documents and her subsequent appearance on “60 Minutes” and before Congress is that Facebook’s top executives knew that internally all of their data and studies corroborated what critics like. have been telling me for over a decade: The problems Facebook amplifies aren’t easy – or even possible – to solve as long as the business continues to operate on its founding principles, that maximizing users, growth and engagement are paramount. and take precedence over all other values. Facebook is not about money or profit. He always had too much money and in 2011 the profits soared to unbelievable rates.
Imagine having so much money that you don’t have to worry about the money! It’s Facebook. It’s Mark Zuckerberg. No, Facebook is all about generating more Facebook, more human activity on Facebook, more humans using Facebook, and those humans using it longer throughout the day.
So the big news here is that Zuckerberg knew from the start that his critics were right and he was wrong, but he continued to be wrong – loudly and publicly. Is it too early to say, “I told you?
Q. For those who may not be familiar with the ins and outs of Facebook, how do you think what Haugen is saying threatens our democracy?
A. Haugen is a hero. She doesn’t just sacrifice a job, she limits her career prospects because she sees that Facebook is doing a lot of harm in the world. Very few of his findings were new. My academic community – internet and digital media scholars, including my AVU colleague David Nemer – have documented how Facebook and WhatsApp not only spread, but amplify and focus messages, images and destructive ideologies and promote authoritarian movements in places like Brazil, Hungary, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the United States. But it is difficult to get “60 minutes” to listen to the scholars. We need a whistleblower.
The key to understanding how Facebook and WhatsApp are undermining democracy is to understand that it is not about content per se. It’s not about whether the material is true or misleading or anything. It’s about how Facebook and WhatsApp make it so easy for like-minded people to find each other and launch into frenzies of paranoia and outrage. Outrage can focus on immigrants, religious or ethnic minorities, women, journalists, teachers (I have suffered my share of serious threats to myself and my family). And since Facebook and WhatsApp are so ideal for fostering coordinated harassment, users can swarm their targets, effectively silencing them, sometimes killing them (as we’ve seen repeatedly in India, the UK, and the UK). other places). Plus, as effective as Facebook is at motivating people, it hinders what we really need to run a functioning democracy: deliberation.
This is why I named my democracy lab the Deliberative Media Lab instead of the Digital Media Lab. We must find ways to foster and improve the practices of deliberation or this republic – and all republics – will collapse under the pressures of technologically magnified outrage.
Q. Some people are probably thinking, “Oh, another day, another Facebook crisis.” As someone who has written a book on the business, where do you think this one fits in its 17 year history?
A. Now Ms. Haugen is a very intelligent and savvy whistleblower. His background in data science is crucial to establishing his credibility and allows him to interpret the results of internal studies based on data that only Facebook owns and keeps locked away so academics cannot see it. She also used her lawyers to file complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She understood that Mark Zuckerberg and others at the top of Facebook lied – at least by omission – in public statements about the risks to the business and the negative externalities of the company’s actions around the world.
This means that Zuckerberg wasn’t just lying to Congress and you and me and the other 3 billion Facebook users; Zuckerberg intentionally deceived investors. The Dodd-Frank Act specifically protects whistleblowers who reveal company secrets that show company executives cheating on investors in public markets. This not only protects Haugen, but puts Facebook in a new and unique position of legal danger.
Q. Are there regulations that can better protect the public from Facebook? Or are they just too big? If you could take a magic wand, what would you do?
A. Most of the regulatory suggestions that the rulers of the Hill or even of Europe offered came out of the 20th century playbook and would only deal with cosmetic issues. I found every proposal ridiculously inadequate to cope with the reach and scale of Facebook.
Everyone should remember that we have never seen a company with this kind of influence, power and wealth on a global scale. It is comparable to, but even stronger, than the British East India Company. Facebook influences the way 3 billion people around the world experience the world, their countries and cities, and their social relationships. It is an incredible power. We have never seen anything like it. There are 7.6 billion humans in the world and 3 billion are on Facebook! They communicate in over 100 languages!
And many powerful world leaders are in cahoots with Facebook. Most of the regulatory proposals ignore all of this and try to shave the spurs off the edges of the system or imagine that Facebook is just an American website operating in English, like it’s a blog or something.
To face the threat of Facebook, we must strike at its heart: the surveillance system that feeds the beast. We need to severely restrict what Facebook can track about us and find out more about us. We need to limit how long that personal data is stored – maybe seven days, maybe 30 days. We must limit the uses to which Facebook, Google, Verizon, CVS, the Wall Street Journal, Amazon or any other company that sucks our behavioral data puts our data. We must starve the beast. We must regain power over our own activities and over our own hearts and minds.
Q. I imagine there were some heated discussions with the students about what Haugen said and what happened with Facebook in general. Something specific that you can share?
A. Oh! I’ll find out tonight when I teach!
Q. What will you keep your eye on in the future?
A. I’m not going to pay much attention to what the US Congress and its members say about Facebook and its ilk. There has been a lot of noise for three years and no progress or even consensus.
I’ll see if President Biden [Securities and Exchange Commission] and [Federal Trade Commission] have teeth. [Former President Barack] Obama certainly is not. It was clear that those regulators under Obama were far too close to Facebook and Google to take the issues seriously.
It was around the time when we had the chance to do something. I fear it is too late. Silicon Valley favorite Obama has really let us down on this front. The people of Biden talk about it better. But the results still elude us.