The fight over Facebook’s content censor button will make all users lose
Once the so-called Facebook whistleblower revealed her identity and story, it was clear the narrative about the future of one of the largest social networking sites would soon go off the rails.
What Haugen revealed in her initial leaks to the Wall Street Journal, which they dubbed the “Facebook Files,” were documents and research on how Facebook had made decisions on which accounts to censor, survey data on Instagram use among teens, and the status of the civic integrity team tasked with countering misinformation around political topics.
Many of the revelations are indeed fascinating —and some damning — but they generally point to a company constantly embattled with external and internal demands to censor and shut down accounts and pages that spread “misinformation” and “hateful” content. Who determines what that content is, and what classifies as such, is another point.
Among her allegations in her first public interview on 60 Minutes, she posited that the disbanding of the civic integrity team, of which she was a part, was directly responsible for the January 6th riot at the Capitol building.
In the days since, Haugen has become a hero to critics of the social media giant on both the right and the left, animating these arguments before a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection on Tuesday.
It created the perfect Two Minutes Hate session in Washington and on major media, allowing unchecked conjecture, hyperbole, and feverish contempt for a platform that allows ordinary people to post online and small businesses to run ads on their products.
Unusual for DC, Republicans and Democrats are united on confronting Facebook, though they are animated by different reasons. Generally, Democrats say the platform does not censor enough content and want it to do more, evoking the “interference” that led to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Republicans, on the other hand, believe the censorship is pointed in the wrong direction, often targeting conservative content creators, and would like to see more even-handedness.
The picture painted by all lawmakers, however, is of a company adding to general societal discord.
“Facebook has caused and aggravated a lot of pain and profited off the spreading of disinformation, misinformation, and sowing hate,” said committee chair Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who days before received ridicule for asking Instagram to ban the “Finsta” program (Finstas are fake Instagram accounts created by teens to avoid the prying eyes of parents).
The comments of Blumenthal and others were indeed hyperbolic, considering the vast majority of Facebook product users post images, videos, and text to their friends and family and can in no way be considered objectionable, but it helps lead to their ultimate aim.
But considering the premise of these hearings and investigations on Capitol Hill is to frame and inform future legislation, it is clear that regulation will soon be directly targeted at social media content and users, not the company itself, will be the ones to suffer.
As much as one would like to castigate the Silicon Valley firm with tens of thousands of employees and a stock ticker, it derives its power and influence as a platform for billions of individuals with something to say. A select number of the posts on Facebook may be atrocious or wrong, and they deserved to be called out, but they still are the posts of individuals and groups. Users have the option to flag posts for inappropriate content.
What makes many of the allegations leveled at Facebook interesting — albeit insincere (content designed to elicit an angry response, body image issues, unverified stories, etc.) — is that many of these can also be lobbed at traditional institutions: clickbait partisan journalism, Hollywood and the modeling industry, and tabloids that operate as rumor mills. In the age of social media, however, these are dying breeds.
The fact that many media outlets are openly advocating against social networks, technologies that directly compete with them, also makes this quite conflicted as we have seen in Australia.
When regulations do come to pass, and we can only assume they will, the only significant action will be to restrict what can and cannot be posted on the platform. Whether it is the mandatory hiring of a certain number of moderators, a veto process for third parties, or mandatory ID verification, which advertisers are already subject to, it will mean limiting and censoring the platform. This will harm users and consumers.
While there are many positive reforms that could be invoked in the wake of the Facebook moment — a national privacy and data law, for example — likely it will be the users of these platforms who will ultimately suffer.
The new Internet age has led most of the world to untold levels of growth and prosperity. Being able to connect with friends and family wherever they may be is a public good that we have only begun to understand and appreciate.
If we allow regulators to deploy content censorship buttons and restrict our ability to post and interact online, who is to say that only the “bad guys” will be caught up in the net?
If we believe in free speech and an open Internet, it is our responsibility to push for sane, smart, and effective rules, not those that only seek to punish and restrict what people can say online.
Yaël Ossowski is the deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center.