“I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best of us,” Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said at the top of her testimony in a Senate hearing on Tuesday. But she continued, “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
The gist of that comment—that Facebook can and should be a better company—characterized much of the first half of the hearing. Over and over, Haugen said that Facebook can make its gargantuan network, which encompasses Instagram and WhatsApp, safer, but has chosen to put profits before people and their safety. So, she said, Facebook needs “help.”
“The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but they won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”
The hearing was spurred by Haugen’s recent revelations, which included showing that Facebook knew Instagram was deeply toxic for teenage girls, resisted changes to make its platform safer for fear of reducing engagement, and knew it was openly used by drug and human traffickers. The hearing itself was focused on protecting kids, with lawmakers asking Haugen about privacy, Facebook’s effects on children and teens, its algorithms, and more. Overall, the hearing seemed focused on the possibility of reforming Facebook’s empire into something more humane, whether by hook or by crook, or as Haugen suggested, by reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“I believe in the potential of Facebook. We can have social media we enjoy, that connects us, without tearing apart our democracy, putting our children in danger, or sowing ethnic violence across the world,” Haugen said. “We can do better.”
The problem is that this rhetoric mirrors how we talk about capitalism itself. Reformers often say that capitalism might be good, actually, if it used less surveillance, or if it’s just a bit nicer to people. But capitalism can’t be saved, and neither can Facebook.
Facebook’s endless problems with the Sisyphian task of moderating three social platforms encompassing billions of users have been documented for years. As Facebook ballooned in size, following an unrelenting path of voracious growth, its issues with moderation only grew larger and its policies more complex and contradictory.
Haugen herself alluded to this in her testimony when she said, “Regularly, integrity actions, projects that were hard-fought by the teams trying to keep us safe, are undone by new growth projects that counteract those same remedies.” Counterespionage teams were understaffed to deal with ”even a third” of cases they came across, and “if we built even a basic detector, we would have many more cases,” she said.
These are clearly problems of scale, which Facebook has had many years to deal with and has been fundamentally unable to, for the simple reason that it has never stopped chasing growth at all costs. This could be framed as an issue of priorities that Facebook can still rectify with “help," but the issue is complicated when the problems exist precisely because of Facebook’s size.
Take, for example, Monday’s global service outage when a server configuration error took Facebook and its properties off the internet.
“But I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies,” Haugen told the Senate subcommittee. “It also means that millions of small businesses weren’t able to reach potential customers and countless photos of new babies weren’t joyously celebrated by family and friends around the world.”
Haugen used the service outage as an opportunity to illustrate both the harm and the good that Facebook can do, but overlooks how both are more a function of its size and market power than a lack of transparency or accountability. Beyond small businesses and new-baby photos, millions of people could effectively not use the internet as they know it because for years now, Facebook has gone to great lengths to essentially make itself the entire internet to a portion of the global population.
For example, Facebook runs a program called Internet.org with millions of users, which serves a Facebook-approved version of the internet to people for free with its Free Basics app. Particularly in Africa, Facebook has silently expanded this walled garden by partnering with civic groups and corporations. Putting that aside, WhatsApp—one of Facebook’s major acquisitions under antitrust scrutiny—is used by the supermajority of Latin America as the primary form of communication. We could say that this was simply sad, with maybe a bit of good to it, as Haugen did, but the real question is how Facebook became so dominant, at what cost, and whether we want a global communication system so deeply centralized.
Eventually, Haugen was asked about antitrust directly. She referred to Free Basics specifically, but only to argue that Facebook should not be broken up. The reasoning? That Facebook would make less money, and that would be bad.
“What I’m scared of is… Right now Facebook is the internet for lots of the world. If you go to Africa, the internet is Facebook. If you split Facebook and Instagram apart, it’s likely that most advertising dollars will go to Instagram and Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is endangering lives around the world, only now there won’t be money to fund it.”
“These systems will continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up,” she said.
Facebook has experienced years of intense scrutiny over the exact issues that are being discussed in the wake of Haugen’s revelations, and has only succeeded in making its inherent problems worse. During the hearing, Haugen compared fixing Facebook’s issues to mandating that cars come with seatbelts. But maybe Facebook doesn’t need a seatbelt. Maybe it just needs to stop being given more chances.