WHY WE NEED TO TAKE THE 'FACEBOOK PAPERS' SERIOUSLY
"Despite being used by more than half of the global population, the long-term impact of these platforms on our physical and mental health has yet to be fully seen and understood."
— Megan Kee
By Megan Kee
Megan Kee is the Director and Founder of Twentytwenty Arts, which produces art-focused campaigns and fundraisers for charities/non-profits in the area of mental health, homelessness, and addiction.
Whether we like it or not, the vast majority of our news, social interactions, and cultural experiences now happen online. Unsurprisingly, most of that activity happens on social media. From links to images and text, social media has democratized the act of publishing content online. Anyone with an internet connection can participate. You do not need to be an author or journalist to share a story — which is both incredible and terrifying.
Facebook has one of the largest shares of social media users, including 2.8 billion Facebook users, 1.4 billion Instagram users, and 2 billion Whats app users. Despite being used by more than half of the global population, the long-term impact of these platforms on our physical and mental health has yet to be fully seen and understood. However, the recently leaked ‘Facebook Papers’ provide insight into how social media can influence everything from hate speech to an individual’s self-worth.
At the end of October 2021, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, shared thousands of internal documents (including internal employee discussions, memos, research, and presentations) that have been dubbed the ‘Facebook Papers’. While I could not begin to address every issue raised in these documents, I thought I would address the main ones, including Facebook’s:
negative impact on teen mental health
selection of maximum engagement over user safety
lack of transparency
"According to slides reported by The Wall Street Journal: “32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Facebook knew Instagram was toxic for teens
This isn’t really news, is it? Whether you’re 15 or 50, the adverse effects of spending a few hours on social media can leave you feeling insecure no matter what age you are. However, these findings provide (limited) quantitative data on how damaging its effects can be on developing minds.
Facebook conducted detailed research on how Instagram was impacting the mental health and well-being of teenagers. However, in true corporate fashion, Facebook did not share these findings with the public. According to slides reported by The Wall Street Journal: “32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Furthermore, one internal Facebook presentation found that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users believed Instagram was where they originated. Facebook also found that 14% of boys in America said that Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.
Selection of maximum engagement over user safety
Dozens of Facebook documents suggest that the company actively tries to persuade people to spend more time on their platforms. The more time people spend on their platform, the more money they make. This push for user attention means that other worthwhile endeavours, like limiting the spread of misinformation and radicalization, becomes secondary.
According to The Washington Post: “One 2019 report tracking a dummy account set up to represent a conservative mother in North Carolina found that Facebook’s recommendation algorithms led her to QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, in just five days. Still, Facebook allowed QAnon to operate on its site largely unchecked for another 13 months.”
If you’re interested in seeing how damaging QAnon conspiracies can be on people’s lives and interpersonal relationships, look no further.
Another key finding is that Facebook’s algorithm gave emoji reactions like ‘angry’ five times the weight as ‘likes’. These posts were then boosted in users’ feeds. Naturally, posts that prompt stronger reactions were more likely to increase engagement. While Facebook has since corrected the weight of these emojis, it is important to recognize how much power Facebook wields in swaying public opinion and spreading negativity.
"Whether you’re a teenager or business owner, being on social media has almost become a necessity, but how you engage with it is entirely up to you. You get to choose who you follow, what kind of content you engage with, and how often you engage with it."
A lack of public transparency
The documents outline that Zuckerberg’s public statements are often at odds with internal company findings. For example, when Zuckerberg testified before Congress last year, he said that the company removes 94 percent of the hate speech it finds before a human will report it. However, researchers estimate that the company was removing less than 5% of all hate speech on Facebook.
The key takeaway is that Facebook has known for years that it is failing to control hate speech on its platform. As one article on Wired explains:
“In the same way you and I need a credit score to get a loan, Facebook and other social media platforms should need a content moderation credit score — based on takedown rates, not proactive rates or other meaningless measures — to continue to do business.”
What can we take away from all of this? The truth is, I worry deeply about the state of the world. From teen mental health to QAnon conspiracies about JFK Jr., it can all feel a little hopeless at times, but we all have the ability to create meaningful change. Here are a few of my personal tips for standing in your own power:
Create healthy boundaries with how you engage with social media. Whether you’re a teenager or business owner, being on social media has almost become a necessity, but how you engage with it is entirely up to you. You get to choose who you follow, what kind of content you engage with, and how often you engage with it. Try setting a 30-minute alarm on your phone before scrolling, not touching your phone for the first and last hour of the day, or spending an entire day disconnected. You do have autonomy. You do have a life outside of social media. That is where your real power lies.
Continue to hold companies accountable. Don’t be afraid to be critical of companies whose actions do not seek to benefit the greater good. Just because you like their platform or business model (*cough* Amazon *cough*) doesn’t mean you need to accept the way they treat workers or customers. Continue to fight for the world you want to live in.
Become an advocate. You don’t need to protest, start a movement, or change the world to become an advocate. Sometimes, just having critical discussions with loved ones, staying informed, and affecting change at school or work is enough. The world’s problems often feel so big and overwhelming that we often miss how easily we can impact the lives of the people around us.