4 Takeaways From Facebook's Whistleblower [Content Made Simple]

Issue #241: An analysis of the FB algorithm, how ever social platform turns into a shopping mall, and more.


4 Key Takeaways From Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen



Haugen worked at Facebook for nearly two years after stints at Google, Yelp and Pinterest.

At Facebook, she studied how the social network's algorithm amplified misinformation and was exploited by foreign adversaries.

Haugen told Congress that Facebook consistently chose to maximize its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms, just as it hid from the public and government officials internal research that illuminated the harms of Facebook products.

"The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual
violence that harms and even kills people," Haugen testified.


A great, brief explainer on Haugen’s testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. I was encouraged by the 30 minutes I was able to watch of the hearing as lawmakers seemed less interested in blustering about censorship and shadow-banning and more interested in addressing the actual concerns at hand—Facebook’s lack of transparency and apparent lack of willingness to act in the best interest of its users.


Link #1: The Facebook whistleblower says its algorithms are dangerous. Here’s why.

The MIT Technology Review is really hitting it out of the park on their deeper dives into a lot of the recent revelations around Facebook. If you’d like a good explainer on the Facebook algorithm(s) and why they’re dangerous, this is a great piece for you.

Colloquially, we use the term “Facebook’s algorithm” as though there’s only one. In fact, Facebook decides how to target ads and rank content based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of algorithms. Some of those algorithms tease out a user’s preferences and boost that kind of content up the user’s news feed. Others are for detecting specific types of bad content, like nudity, spam, or clickbait headlines, and deleting or pushing them down the feed.

Link #2: Will TikTok Make You Buy It?

Fascinating exploration of how the natural end of every social media platform is to become a mall.

Social media companies have been chasing the dream of “social commerce” for years, ramping up advertising and nudging their users toward buying and selling in hopes of getting a piece of the internet’s other most profitable business.

It’s almost quaint to think about the early days, when Facebook was seen as a place where friends could connect; Twitter was a news source; YouTube was the funny-video site; and Instagram was for sharing nice photos. Now, in their efforts to keep people scrolling and buying, they’re overgrown with engagement-juicing features, laden with ads and infested with brands.

Link #3: Facebook Is Weaker Than We Knew

This is a really good, sober, balanced piece on the state of Facebook by Kevin Roose, who is always insightful in his analysis of big tech. It’s easy to laugh at Facebook going offline or grumble at all of the harrowing information we see in the WSJ’s Facebook Files, but Kevin helps us zoom out and look at the bigger picture of what we know about Facebook now, and that it does look a bit more brittle than many have thought it.

It’s far too early to declare Facebook dead. The company’s stock price has risen nearly 30 percent in the past year, lifted by strong advertising revenue and a spike in use of some products during the pandemic. Facebook is still growing in countries outside the United States, and could succeed there even if it stumbles domestically. And the company has invested heavily in newer initiatives, like augmented and virtual reality products, that could turn the tide if they’re successful.

But Facebook’s research tells a clear story, and it’s not a happy one. Its younger users are flocking to Snapchat and TikTok, and its older users are posting anti-vaccine memes and arguing about politics. Some Facebook products are actively shrinking, while others are merely making their users angry or self-conscious.


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