For years, many have argued the dangers of Facebook. Little happened. Then came whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Haugen was incredibly clear in her testimony to Congress: “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.” She then proceeded to outline how, based on her experience and the documents she gathered from the company before her exit.
A controversial move on her part, the gamble is likely to hasten change. Haugen — who is not a politician — provided Congress with a road map for regulations, and ultimately outlined how Americans could once again be brought together.
While much attention was paid to the harms of social media including for young girls, Haugen’s main argument went one step further. In detailing how Facebook executives — not everyday citizens — played a role in fostering these outcomes, she provided us with a plausible explanation for our collective bad behavior. It’s not so much that people are trying to be hurt, angry or misinformed. It’s that Facebook was operating in a way that would knowingly bring out the worst in each of us.
In other words, it’s not entirely our fault; it’s Facebook’s.
The opportunity to relinquish blame, at least in part, could be a powerful political tool. By reshaping our accusations from blaming each other to blaming a common enemy, Haugen has given us an easy out. After years of losing friends and family to siloed information, bipartisan efforts to crack down on Facebook could provide us a renewed sense of community, if not humility.
Yet the glimmer of hope in Haugen’s testimony goes beyond identifying a common enemy. She didn’t argue to regulate content, per se. She suggested regulating the algorithms, and in doing so, she is targeting a root cause of many issues in a technological age.
Regulating algorithms has never been fully broached by Congress. It’s not that it’s unknown, it’s that few tech insiders are willing to champion the cause and most tech lobbyists fight against regulations. This makes Haugen’s explicit testimony as a former Facebook employee a beacon in the storm, and it matters immensely.
Simply put, algorithms are a series of rules for computers to follow. Central to Haugen’s argument, these rules are selected by those who create and implement them. For example, there are countless other ways that Facebook could have prioritized content; they simply choose to prioritize algorithms that ultimately promote negative emotions.
This assignment of responsibility is huge.
Pinning the legal onus on companies to select for algorithms that prioritize the public good over profits carries implications that would extend well beyond Facebook. Algorithms are essentially everywhere. They help determine which roads you take, the music you listen to and what soap you buy. More seriously, they can determine if you qualify for a mortgage or how much you pay for car insurance. In instances where the algorithms get it wrong, you could literally find yourself in jail. In short, targeting them is a really big deal.
If Haugen is taken seriously — and she should be — the question of how we prioritize algorithms could crack open regulatory doors for tech companies far and wide. It could prompt discussions to rein in bias, polarization and misinformation. This may have started off about Facebook, but it could ultimately end with long-overdue regulations for a digital age, and a new direction of technological application.
Perhaps most importantly, it is once again clear that unregulated or self-regulated capitalism rarely works. In this case, the lack of government oversight for years regarding Facebook has ultimately tested the very limits of democracy itself. The hope now would be that in the same way digital platforms have ripped at our seams, bipartisan regulations on Big Tech could be the needle that helps stitch us back together.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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