Comment: If Facebook won’t rein itself in, government must

Neither the FCC nor FTC moves quickly enough to police social media. A new regulatory agency might.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Frances Haugen, who revealed herself Sunday as the Facebook whistleblower, could not have made things any clearer.

“Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money,” the former member of Facebook’s civic integrity team, who left the company this spring, told Scott Pelley of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

This wasn’t just Haugen’s opinion as a digital-economy veteran, with a long stint at Google before she joined Facebook. She had the goods. The huge trove of documents that she took when she left the behemoth social network spells out its ugly incentive structure in case you had any remaining doubt: Outrage, hate and lies are what drive digital engagement, and therefore revenue.

The system is broken. And we all suffer from it.

But how to fix it? A problem that threatens the underpinnings of our civil society calls for a radical solution: a new federal agency focused on the digital economy.

The idea comes from none other than a former Federal Communications Commission chairman, Tom Wheeler, who maintains that neither his agency nor the Federal Trade Commission are nimble or tech-savvy enough to protect consumers in this volatile and evolving industry.

“You need an agency that doesn’t say ‘here are the rigid rules,’ when the rules become obsolete almost immediately,” Wheeler, who headed the FCC from 2013 to 2017, told me Monday.

Too much of the digital world operates according to Mark Zuckerberg’s famous motto: “Move fast and break things.” That’s a perfect expression of what Wheeler called “consequence-free behavior.”

So if we really want to think about the public interest in the fast-paced digital world, it’ll be necessary to revise “the cumbersome, top-down rule-making process that has been in place since the industrial era,” as Wheeler wrote in a Harvard’s Shorenstein Center paper, with Phil Verveer, the Justice Department lead counsel on a suit that resulted in the breakup of AT&T, and Gene Kimmelman, a prominent consumer-protection advocate.

Digital platforms like Facebook and Google have become “pseudo-governments that make the rules,” Wheeler told me. No surprise that they make the rules to benefit themselves.

The existing regulatory structure just doesn’t work, he argued in a Brookings Institution piece. The FCC and FTC are filled with dedicated professionals but are constrained. Their antitrust actions may grab headlines but can’t protect against more general consumer abuses; like those take-it-or-leave-it “terms and conditions” they force on their customers.

And it’s not as though Facebook hasn’t been punished for its offenses. In 2019, the FTC slapped the company with a record-breaking $5 billion fine for deceiving billions of users and failing to protect their privacy.

But such a penalty doesn’t address the issues that Haugen was talking about Sunday, or those that she’s expected to discuss Tuesday when she testifies before Congress.

“The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she told CBS. “Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

Haugen’s simple delivery made for a powerful interview, hammering home the details of the shocking information she shared with the Wall Street Journal for its recent blockbuster investigation, The Facebook Files.

Among the revelations: Facebook is thoroughly aware that the mental health of teens is damaged by engagement with Instagram, which it owns (“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” stated one slide from an internal presentation) but has done little to change that.

And despite its constant protestations to the contrary, Facebook has built a business model that it knows full well relies on the anger and outrage of its nearly 3 billion users to keep them engaged and clicking. (“Misinformation, toxicity and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares,” its own data scientists concluded, according to the Journal report.)

As Haugen explained, this phenomenon motivates politicians not just to communicate differently but to govern differently, by embracing less reasonable, more outrage-inducing policy positions. You can see this playing out in extreme rhetoric on emotional issues like immigration policy. Facebook’s practices, she believes, even propelled the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by allowing misinformation to flourish and organizers to congregate on its sites.

Facebook’s representatives deny many of her charges, calling some of them ludicrous.

“We continue to make significant improvements to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content,” said Facebook spokesperson Lena Pietsch. “To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”

Company founder Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has repeatedly said he thinks more regulation is necessary. (As long as it doesn’t cut into profits, one can assume he means.)

That all sounds mighty reasonable. And mighty familiar. Zuckerberg loves to apologize sincerely and carry on.

Facebook keeps growing in size, value and influence; vividly demonstrated when the massive platform crashed Monday, along with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp, and disrupted an enormous chunk of the planet that has come to rely on them.

Something has to change. And that doesn’t mean a little tinkering around the edges of what already exists. The digital revolution requires a revolutionary change in restraining out-of-control practitioners.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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