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It is the most important moment in the history of Facebook. Hyperbole, maybe, but only a little.
Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen captivated U.S. senators at a hearing Tuesday with a nuanced diagnosis that the company must be saved from itself – for the sake of all of us.
What seemed different from Facebook’s previous 4 million scandals and reprimands was Haugen’s emphasis on what she sees as the company’s fundamental flaws in the technical design and organization of the business. business, and the messy but sophisticated discussions that take place outside of Facebook to improve the business.
Haugen said Facebook has stretched too far to effectively deal with harms such as ethnic violence and human trafficking that have been linked to activity on its apps. She dissected the ways that fixing Facebook to get us to spend more time online made our worst impulses worse. And she hammered home the message that the public shouldn’t be kept in the dark about what Facebook knew about its influence on us and our world.
The image that emerged from recent Wall Street Journal reports and Haugen’s media interviews was not that of Facebook as the cartoonish James Bond villain. This was a company that cannot control the machines it has built, but refuses to accept this reality.
“Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop that they can’t get out of,” Haugen told Senators.
Some of Haugen’s and Facebook’s criticisms of the company are probably overstated. And a lot of what Haugen said was nothing new. But she’s a laser-focused messenger at a time when those in power are ready to stop bickering and asking: What now? What needs to be done to maximize the good of Facebook and minimize the damage?
There is no quick fix, but Haugen and many others have offered some great suggestions on what to try.
Haugen’s most compelling idea was that “engagement-based ranking” is an original sin of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, and other popular apps. When computers prioritize what we see online based on what’s likely to captivate us and keep us longer, they tend to stoke the most salacious or extreme opinions, and subtly entice people. to post more of the same.
Haugen suggested, in essence, turning off computer algorithms and turning the internet more to designs like those in iMessage or earlier versions of Facebook and Instagram that displayed posts in chronological order.
Kate Klonick, who has researched online expression policies in Internet companies, wrote in The New York Times that Facebook could redesign its websites to optimize holistic measures of the good things it offers. Rather than focusing on metrics like which posts are likely to get a ton of shares or likes, she might look at what is likely to get you to attend an event or donate to a charitable cause.
Haugen and others have recommended changing U.S. law to hold Facebook accountable for actual damage, including terrorist acts, resulting from messages the company’s computer systems distributed to people’s streams.
In a recent interview, Haugen also touched on the idea of public representatives to oversee Facebook from the inside, like the Federal Reserve examiners for big banks. She also supported the idea of regulations to force Facebook to work with researchers who want to study the effects of the business on users.
And Haugen suggested that many of Facebook’s worst moments, including its social network used to stoke ethnic violence, could be the result of having too few people to handle its ambitions. Should Facebook be forced to do less, like leaving countries unless the company devotes more resources to them and establishes cultural competence?
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. Facebook mainly Recount Congress – “YOU tell us what to do”. Yet U.S. lawmakers and regulators have done little to tell Facebook how to better govern the apps used by billions of humans.
Facebook has rightly said that it strives to continuously improve its apps and that this is a delicate exercise in compromise. Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday rejected the (simplified) idea that his company prioritizes profits over people’s lives and well-being, and that the company ignores ideas for improvement.
Maybe none of the ideas launched to fix Facebook will be better than the status quo. But what seemed fresh from Haugen was a message of hope: we need the best of Facebook, and we need to work together to make it better.
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