Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Facebook is ignoring the truth, to your detriment.
That’s what a woman who used to work there alleged in a stunning “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday night. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook project manager and now whistleblower, said the company is well aware that its social network is being used to promote hate, violence and misinformation – but it has tried to cover up the evidence in order to generate more revenue. Some of the tens of thousands of pages of internal research and documents Haugen disclosed were previously published as part of a Wall Street Journal series showing that Facebook knows its product is toxic for teens.
“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook, and Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money,” Haugen said in the interview.
While it’s appalling to confront the fact that using Instagram has harmful effects on young girls and that Facebook appears to have prioritized its own growth and profits over curbing the toxic effects of its platforms, it shouldn’t be shocking. What is stunning is the extent to which Facebook seems to have ignored the obvious damage it was causing to society in the process – from contributing to poor body images to depression in teens.
These revelations should be a wake-up call for users of social media or those who are raising potential users of social media to wise up about the dangers. If we’re not going to abandon these platforms en masse – which, let’s face it, is not likely to happen– it’s time to devise ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Accountability may be a long time coming for a company adept at avoiding it, and we certainly can’t count on the company to protect users from its damaging decisions in the meantime. Fixing this begins with education –particularly of the platform’s youngest potential users.
Facebook, of course, has disputed both the premise of Haugen’s claims and the Wall Street Journal reports as selective representations of the facts. “Every day our teams have to balance protecting the ability of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place,” a company spokesperson, Lena Pietsch, told CNN Business. “We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content. To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
And while it’s outrageous that Facebook isn’t owning up to and trying harder to fix the problems with its platform that Haugen has described, what’s even more surprising is that all of this seems to be news to many of its users and to lawmakers. Senators only launched an investigation into Facebook’s effects on youth after the publication of the Wall Street Journal report.
Meanwhile, research has long shown that Facebook causes users to have negative feelings about themselves because people use the platform to post glamorized versions of their lives, leaving others – particularly vulnerable youngsters – to feel that they don’t measure up. A 2020 study of Canadian adolescents, for example, found that both boys and girls – but especially girls – who spend more time on screens and less time doing extracurricular activities are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression and feel less satisfied with their lives.
Thus the debate we should be having isn’t about whether Facebook knows its product is harmful. These facts were established by independent researchers long ago, so it’s practically inconceivable that the company wouldn’t be aware that it is promoting unhappiness and misinformation. Rather, the question we should be asking ourselves today is why Americans are still spending so much of their lives on a platform that leaves them unhappy and divided.
There are obvious solutions here, so basic, so fundamental that they almost seem implausible and pie-in-the-sky: Find sources of joy. We could all spend less time comparing ourselves to other people and more time walking outside and seeing friends and family. But between the pandemic and our own human nature (which Facebook exploits as well, by the way), these solutions aren’t enough on their own. Americans need to better understand the dangers of Facebook and adopt some risk-management strategies.
The amount of time we spend on social media poses a real threat to our democracy. As I’ve noted before, millions of people read misinformation about the 2016 presidential election online before casting their votes. Mind-bending conspiracies also helped drive people to storm the Capitol on January 6. So Americans have got to get better about identifying and not falling for fake news and inflammatory content. Haugen said Facebook knows that content that invokes anger keeps people on the site. As the Capitol riot showed, the consequences of stoking outrage can be deadly.
The Daily Beast found that posts by Russian trolls, designed to sow domestic discord, get nine times more likes, retweets, and replies in English than in other languages. Why are Americans so susceptible to anger and so particularly bad at detecting misinformation?
Part of the problem, Mia Bloom – a professor who studies extremism – and Sophia Moskalenko – a psychologist who studies conflict and conspiracies – write in “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon,” published earlier this year, is lack of education. They offer a contrasting example: “Finland’s schoolchildren learn to identify fake news by studying examples of fake stories, altered photos, and divisive content designed to foment group conflict,” they write. “From elementary school onward, Finnish children practice sorting online content into truth or fiction, assessing media bias and deciphering how clickbait content preys on users’ emotions.” We need a similar program in every American elementary school.
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Bloom and Moskalenko also rightly call for libraries to offer courses for adults on how to spot misinformation and protect themselves online. We need to turn to legitimate news outlets for information – not rely on Facebook, which plans to promote content it perceives as favorable and may fail to show us important news if the company doesn’t think people will (literally) like and engage with it.
The only way to protect ourselves against the damage caused by Facebook is to start relying on other information sources for joy and edification – like parks, hobbies, friends and legitimate news sources. It’s probably also the only way to get the company to take the threats it poses to users seriously and try harder to fix them.