Your mom was right: Facebook is bad for you!

tl;dr

Two whistleblowers have revealed that Facebook is well aware of the real world harms it causes to its users and to democratic ideals worldwide, but it chooses to prioritise profit over doing the right thing. We wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology asking them to initiate an inquiry into the revelations made, specifically about India and to call the relevant stakeholders to testify before it.

Plot twist: Your mom was right!

Almost all of us have had our parents tell us to not use social media claiming that it will harm us. Turns out they were right all along, just not in the way they meant. Two whistleblowers, Ms. Frances Haugen and Ms. Sophie Zhang, have come forward with claims that Facebook is well aware of the harm its platforms cause to its users but chooses to not do everything in its power to stop this, as it would hurt the company’s bottom line.

In September 2021, Haugen submitted eight complaints to the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower which allege that Facebook is knowingly withholding information and research about its shortcomings from the public and its investors. The Wall Street Journal also published a series of ten reports titled, “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation” based on a review of internal Facebook documents, including research reports, online employee discussions and drafts of presentations to senior management through which they came to the conclusion that Facebook Inc. knows that its platforms are harmful to its users. The documents, which are the basis of the complaints and the WSJ series, were disclosed by Haugen, a former product manager hired to help protect against election interference on Facebook, who left the company early this year.  

Another whistleblower, who testified before the UK parliamentary committee on the Online Safety Bill, is former Facebook data scientist, Ms. Sophie Zhang. According to Zhang, Facebook is “allowing authoritarian governments to manipulate political discourse”. Such manipulation is being accomplished through likes, comments, shares and reactions made by inauthentic or compromised accounts, termed as ‘fake engagement’. “In addition to distorting the public’s perception of how popular a piece of content is, fake engagement can influence how that content performs in the all-important news feed algorithm; it is a kind of counterfeit currency in Facebook’s attention marketplace.” Zhang was specifically disturbed by how such tactics were being used in countries such as Honduras, Azerbaijan & Iraq, however when she voiced her concerns to Guy Rosen, Facebook’s Vice-President of Integrity, she was told that, priority would be given to fake engagement campaigns in ‘the US/western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc.’ by threat intelligence.

So what do the complaints reveal?

Complaint: Facebook misled investors and the public about its role perpetuating misinformation and violent extremism relating to the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection.

According to statements made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the United States Congress, Facebook has not profited from the spread of disinformation on its platforms, instead they have worked to reduce incentives for people to share misinformation to begin with. However, as per the original evidence submitted by Haugen to the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower, “Facebook’s records confirm that Facebook knowingly chose to permit political misinformation and violent content/groups and failed to adopt or continue measures to combat these issues, included as related to the 2020 US election and the January 6th insurrection, in order to promote virality and growth on its platforms”.

Complaint: Facebook misled investors and the public about “transparency” reports boasting proactive removal of over 90% identified hate speech when internal records show that “as little as 3-5% of hate” speech is actually removed.

Zuckerberg, in a sworn testimony before the US Congress, said that, “what are transparency reports show is that… we are proactively identifying, I think it’s about 94% of the hate speech that we ended up taking down, and the vast majority of that before people even have to report it to us”. However, according to a document titled, “Problematic Non-violating Narratives document” cited in the complaint, Facebook is deleting less than 5% of all the hate posted on its platform. Another document cited, titled, “What is collateral damage?”, goes on to state that Facebook’s core mechanics, such as virality, recommendations, and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part of why hate speech, misinformation and divisive political speech flourishes on the platform.

Complaint: Facebook misled investors and the public about the negative impact of Instagram and Facebook on teenagers’ mental and physical health.

At a US congressional hearing, Zuckerberg said that, “The research that we’ve seen is  that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits”. However, the complaint reveals that research done by Facebook on the effects of its platforms show that they are harmful to children. The researchers found that:

  1. 13.5% of teen girls on Instagram say the platform makes thoughts of “Suicide and Self Injury” worse;
  2. 17% of teen girl Instagram users say the platform makes “eating issues” worse;
  3. Instagram makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.

Complaint: Facebook misled investors and the public about its promotion of human trafficking/slavery/servitude.

According to the complaint, Facebook’s internal research has shown that the “platform enables all three stages of the human exploitation lifecycle” (recruitment, facilitation & exploitation) and that they were aware that Facebook and Instagram were being used to promote human trafficking and domestic servitude.

Complaint: Facebook misled investors and the public about the negative consequences of its algorithms, which claim to prioritize “meaningful social interactions” or MSI but which actually promote virality of polarizing misinformation and hate speech.

According to statements made by Facebook and Zuckerberg, its algorithms prioritize “meaningful social interactions”, which means that the algorithm prioritizes content which has a higher probability of getting any type of interaction, such as reactions, comments, shares or likes. However, even though Facebook claims that this is beneficial for relationships and well-being, “internal documents highlight how prioritizing MSI such as reshares actually furthers misinformation and other divisive, low-quality content”. According to a document cited in the complaint titled, “We are Responsible for Viral Content”, research has shown that outrage and misinformation are more likely to be viral.

Complaint: Facebook misled its investors and the public about equal enforcement of its terms given that high-profile users are “whitelisted” under its “XCheck” program.  

According to Zuckerberg’s sworn testimony before the US Congress, Facebook applies its terms of service in a “fair and consistent” manner. He further stated that, “(i)ncitement of violence is against our policy and there are not (sic) exceptions to that, including for politicians”. However, according to a document cited in the complaint, titled, “Whitelisting”, “over the years many XChecked pages, profiles and entities have been exempted from enforcement”.

Complaint: Facebook misled investors and the public about “bringing the world closer together” where it relegates international users and promotes global division and ethnic violence.

According to claims made by Facebook, it has 2.8 billion users around the world, and that it is committed to international issues. However, Haugen submitted original evidence on how Facebook is failing to curb global misinformation and ethnic violence due to inadequate language capabilities. Currently, Facebook is available in more than 100 different languages with offices or data centers in more than 30 different countries. According to a statement made by Facebook in May 2021 to the US Committee on Energy and Commerce, they work with over 80 independent third party fact-checkers around the world covering more than 60 languages to combat misinformation in these languages. However, according to original evidence submitted by Haugen to the SEC this is inadequate to satisfactorily respond to misinformation and violence inciting statements in regional languages and dialects.    

The complaint also contains an excerpt from a “Adversarial Harmful Networks: India Case Study” which made the following specific disclosure how such misinformation and incitement takes place in India through Facebook,

“RSS [Indian nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] Users, Groups, and Pages promote fear-mongering, anti-Muslim narratives targeted pro-Hindu populations with V&l (violence and inciting) intent. ...There were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to 'pigs' and 'dogs' and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members. Our lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers means much of this content is never flagged or actioned, and we have yet to put forth a nomination for designation of this group given political sensitivities.”

Facebook is also aware that its core product mechanics such as virality, recommendations and optimising for engagement are a significant reason why misinformation and hate speech flourishes on their platforms with almost 1-1.5 million misinformation impressions in India per hour due to reshares.

Complaint: For years, Facebook has misled investors and advertisers about shrinking user base in important demographics, declining content production, and the true number of recipients of “Reach & Frequency” advertising.

Misinformation is also spread at a large scale in India through duplicate accounts or SUMA, which stands for “single user, multiple accounts”. The complaint also claims that for years, Facebook has misrepresented its true number of individual users to advertisers, not properly accounting for "single users with multiple accounts". According to a document referred to as “Lotus Mahal” in the complaints filed, such accounts are used by political actors in India to spread politically sensitive information.

Our recommendations

In light of these damning revelations, it is incumbent upon the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology to ensure that these revelations are investigated thoroughly to understand the possible ramifications of Facebook and its group of companies on Indian citizens and democracy. Therefore, we urged the Committee to initiate an inquiry into these disclosures and call the two whistleblowers, Ms. Frances Haugen and Ms. Sophie Zhang to give testimony to the committee on the revelations made, specifically in the context of India and Indian users of Facebook. Further, as it has previously sent summons and sought testimony from Facebook representatives and Mr. Ajit Mohan, who is the Vice President and Managing Director, Facebook India, specifically, further summons may be sent to him to appear before the committee so that the necessary investigation can be carried out.

Important documents

  1. Letter to Standing Committee on IT on Facebook Whistleblower revelation dated October 25, 2021 (link)
  2. The eight complaints filed by Frances Haugen with the SEC (link)
  3. A whistleblower’s power: Key takeaways from the Facebook Papers published in the Washington Post dated October 25, 2021 (link)