By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
Facebook needs to be less “twitchy.” This digital monster that has taught the culture how to overreact and fly off the handle needs to be tamed. Regulate it. Open it up. Slow it down and make it more human.
“A hard intervention is like taking a piece of content off Facebook, taking a user off Facebook. Soft interventions are about making a slightly different choice: to make the platform less viral, less twitchy,” said Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who testified as a whistleblower during a Senate hearing.
Haugen came to offer testimony about the way in which Facebook’s profit strategy makes young people’s lives worse, how it manipulates our understanding of reality and truth, how it seeds divisiveness. She came to Capitol Hill to paint a behind-the-scenes picture of Facebook’s seeming disregard for the havoc it has caused in our civic life and in our personal ones. She’d already brought her narrative and her documents to the Wall Street Journal. She’d sat for an interview with “60 Minutes.” And now on Tuesday morning, she was settled in behind the witness desk in front of a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee;a bland and bureaucratic name for a group that would get an earful about why humanity seems to be imploding.
Tools of attack: During her tenure at Facebook, Haugen was a product manager, someone cooking up algorithms of the sort that Facebook uses to rank stories in its main news feed. Before that, she was employed by Google, Pinterest and Yelp. She has plenty of insight into the ways in which technology that was originally created to delight or to make life more efficient has blindsided users with negative consequences. Pinterest, a kind of digital mood board, stokes envy with its over-the-top depictions of wedding and home renovation projects. Pity the businesses and brands that end up on the third or fourth page of a Google search. Yelp has become a tool for vindictive diners. The cloud of racial inequality and sexism looms over seemingly all of these platforms.
But Facebook’s technology encourages some of our worst and most dangerous tendencies. Haugen wasn’t focused on the global reach of the digital behemoth, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, or whether it should be broken into bits. For any senator who wanted to argue that the world would be a better place if Facebook had a smaller footprint, Haugen disagreed. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, couldn’t resist referencing his often-repeated grievance that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was censoring conservative views. Haugen essentially shrugged off this concern, equating the digression with a gnat trying to distract from the elephant in the room.
The problem with Facebook is us. We’ve been weaponized against ourselves. Our personal data, our insecurities, our tribal tendencies, our fears. It’s all bringing us down. We have become twitchy social media addicts ready to melt down or explode with the slightest provocation.
The culture needs to slow down and stop responding to comments and photos and videos with a gut reaction of likes, reposts and verbal jabs. We need to refrain from burrowing into the darkest reaches of our subconscious, places where it’s so bleak that any sense of morality and integrity has gone missing. We need to stop piling on, following suit and trying to keep up with everyone from the Jones to that girl from middle school English class.
Return steering wheel to humans: To do all that, Congress needs to return Facebook to human control, because the algorithms have taken over. The computers are in charge. The robots have gone rogue. Zuckerberg has become a stubbornly ineffectual bystander to the company he created. Facebook “is being led by metrics, not led by people,” Haugen said. “The metrics make the decisions.”
Haugen sometimes looked pained as she spoke. At times, she seemed exasperated as she detailed Facebook’s actions and inactions. She commiserated with parents trying to guide their kids through a minefield for which they have no map, no experience. She smiled and laughed at the suggestion that we all just unplug from social media, which is akin to unplugging from life. She gestured broadly, made air quotes and accidentally whacked the microphone in front of her. She was an animated witness whose simple humanity was a striking contrast with Zuckerberg, whose past testimony has been delivered with affectless condescension. Zuckerberg’s quiet disdain for his questioners, who regularly revealed how little they knew about social media, always hung in the air. When he explained himself, it was with an air of superiority.
Haugen often explained herself. She did so with generosity and to an audience that — uncharacteristically — listened attentively and refrained from interrupting. They didn’t demand that she answer complicated questions with a simple yes or no. The senators kept the pontificating to a minimum and instead acted like eager students finally, finally, having access to a knowledgeable teacher who could explain Facebook and tell them what they really should be wringing their hands about.
What Congress can do: For the first time, it seemed that a human was speaking on the subject of Facebook. And she wasn’t just telling them about all the things that Facebook does that are bad for humanity, she was also explaining how Facebook does them and offering advice on how to put a stop to even more damage. Haugen thinks Congress should create a group of federal regulators made up of people who understand the digital economy: academics, programmers and the like. She thinks that Facebook has to be forced to be more transparent in its operations, because right now it’s “like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway.”
By the time Haugen’s testimony was coming to a close after more than three hours, the senators were practically asking her to investigate and regulate and run Facebook. What kind of documents would she ask Facebook to provide to Congress? How would she organize a regulatory board? How would she rewrite the algorithms? It seems that nothing can unite Congress across party lines like a shared disgust for Facebook.
The nation’s lawmakers thanked Haugen for her time and her service. It seemed everyone had learned a lot. All they’d had to do was patiently listen, think for a minute, and not be so twitchy.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.