Facebook is again mired in mounting troubles that have returned it to the spotlight. On Tuesday, whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before Congress to detail how the social media giant’s focus on profits was causing societal harm, arguing that U.S. lawmakers needed to act. Many experts agreed it was damning testimony.
The two events certainly made for awkward timing. In her prepared remarks, Haugen referenced the outage, using it to illustrate not only Facebook’s flaws but its promise.
“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,” she said. “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 is a Harvard-educated American — just like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. During her appearance before the Senate consumer protection subcommittee Tuesday, she focused on issues related to U.S. consumers, including the company’s own research on the negative impact of the Facebook-owned app Instagram on body image for teenagers.
But, as Haugen hinted several times, Facebook’s promise and problems ripple far beyond the United States. The social media giant, along with the companies it owns, has had a profound global impact. The whistleblower even suggested Tuesday that she may testify further on Facebook’s surveillance of cyber espionage.
“What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying, no one wants to read the end of it,” she told the lawmakers, referring to hate-filled accounts on the site that fueled genocidal violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and to recent ethnic and religious violence in Ethiopia.
The downtime on Facebook and its affiliated apps on Monday may have had a larger impact outside of U.S. borders than within them. As The Post’s Amy Cheng reports, the sudden downing of WhatsApp, though barely noticed in the United States, presented a potentially significant disruption to daily life in much of the world.
“WhatsApp has emerged as a popular alternative to text messages, especially in developing nations where telecommunications services can be prohibitively expensive,” Cheng wrote. “But it is more than just a messaging platform: In Lebanon, for instance, coronavirus tests can be ordered — and results received — via WhatsApp. A Philippine diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates operates a WhatsApp hotline to communicate with its citizens in that country. And users in Brazil can use an in-app business directory to search for thousands of food and retail providers.”
Facebook is so prevalent in some parts of the world that when it went down, some assumed it was a total Internet blackout. In Ghana, Internet service advisers took to Twitter and text to lay the blame with Facebook, not them, Elliott wrote.
Facebook has long faced public scrutiny of its role around the world. When Zuckerberg made his own appearance before Congress in 2018, he was pushed to answer questions about Russian troll farms and hate speech in Myanmar (though there were many more questions he was not asked, including ones about Facebook’s role in censorship in Vietnam and ethnic violence in Sri Lanka).
Haugen’s testimony Tuesday wasn’t all focused on this international reach, but her core message did put it in a different light. She told U.S. lawmakers that one of the biggest problems with Facebook was its opaque structure: Often, it is only Facebook that can really understand what is going on at Facebook — and the company is generally the least inclined to act.
“This inability to see into Facebook’s actual systems and confirm they work as communicated is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway,” she told lawmakers.
That situation, however, could well be worse in other countries — particularly developing nations where the rule of law is weaker or the government is not strong enough to challenge Facebook. The company’s own tracking of data in non-English speaking countries has historically been limited, a problem Facebook itself admitted after it was accused of responding too slowly to reports its platforms were being used to spread hate speech ahead of a 2017 purge of 750,000 Rohingya Muslims.
Haugen noted Tuesday that Facebook’s adoption of “engagement-based ranking” — a term that refers to the practice of using algorithms to prioritize content in users’ feeds that generate strong reactions — and a focus from 2018 onward on what it dubbed “meaningful social interactions” between users had resulted in angrier, more divisive content.
“Engagement-based ranking” was fanning ethnic violence “in places like Ethiopia,” where opposition parties in the region of Tigray estimated 50,000 civilian deaths in fighting early this year, Haugen said.
With the latest revelations, some U.S. analysts view Facebook as the walking dead. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose noted this week that one takeaway of the Facebook leak is not that the company is all-powerful, but that it is weak — trapped in “a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize.”
However, Roose noted that “Facebook is still growing in countries outside the United States and could succeed there even if it stumbles domestically.” As Elliott wrote for Rest of World, part of the company’s strategy for “exponential” global growth has been by specifically targeting low-income countries with tools like “Facebook Basics.”
As Monday’s outage showed, much of the world has become reliant on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Certainly, for many millions, these services have made life easier. For these people, a zombie Facebook, dead in the United States but lingering abroad, would not be any better. What would be better is a Facebook able to stand up to the spotlight — both at home and abroad.