Active Stocks
Mon Apr 15 2024 15:59:36
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 160.90 -1.59%
  1. ITC share price
  2. 425.90 -0.98%
  1. State Bank Of India share price
  2. 757.75 -1.17%
  1. ICICI Bank share price
  2. 1,078.80 -2.30%
  1. NTPC share price
  2. 361.35 -0.08%
Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The best way to fix Facebook, courtesy of Frances Haugen

The best way to fix Facebook, courtesy of Frances Haugen

Whistleblower revelations could guide regulatory action in the US

By Haugen’s testimony, social media tends to thrive on social strife (Photo: Reuters)Premium
By Haugen’s testimony, social media tends to thrive on social strife (Photo: Reuters)

At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen didn’t need to convince US lawmakers that the company has a big problem. Republicans and Democrats were united on her side, at several points even calling her a “hero." What they needed was direction. Luckily, Haugen gave that to them. Throughout the hearing, she used the term “engagement-based ranking" to synthesize the complexities of Facebook’s problems into a single neutral term.

Facebook’s business success boils down to algorithms that bump the most titillating content to the top of users’ newsfeeds. These formulas help engage users, but also contribute to the propagation of conspiracy theories and eating disorders among teenage users of Instagram. Haugen said that years from now, women would effectively suffer from brittle bones and infertility because of Facebook’s choices. As a witness, she exuded credibility, refusing to be drawn into personal attacks on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or thorny issues around free speech, admitting when she didn’t have an answer. Her language was clear. All the more devastating for Facebook was how a cool-headed testimony started to sound like a call for intervention. Facebook had been hiding its problems, Haugen said, “and like people often do when they can hide their problems, they get in over their heads." Congress needed to step in and say, “We can figure out how to fix these things together."

Previous Facebook scandals have pulled lawmakers in different directions—squabbling with Zuckerberg, for example, over who’s being censored—and resulted in inaction. But their united support now marks a turning point. So, here are four things that Congress could do:

One, order Facebook to stop or drastically reduce engagement-based ranking algorithms. Remove the nicotine that addicts people to Facebook and Instagram. Haugen’s alternative is “chronological ranking with a little bit of spam demotion." That means going back to Facebook’s early days, where newsfeeds were simply ordered by time. Algorithms could still remove spam, though what that entails will be up to debate, but time and people—rather than machines—would be the curators of what people see. This will hit Facebook’s profits hard and Zuckerberg may have resisted such a move because of his fiduciary obligation to shareholders. That’s why Congress needs to step in.

Two, order Facebook to spend more on content moderation. Haugen said Facebook should not be broken up. That would starve safety teams across the empire of resources and the ability to work together. It would cut the problem into more smaller problems. Instead, she suggests “human-scaled social media." With Facebook’s artificial intelligence often falling short against harmful content, humans already do much of the work spotting and stopping it. But Facebook keeps that work at arm’s length, outsourcing it to third-party vendors. One fix advocated by a recent study by New York University’s Stern School of Business was to double the number of Facebook’s content moderators to 30,000 and make many of them full-time staff members.

Three, establish an agency to audit Facebook’s algorithms and features. Haugen called for a federal regulatory agency that could analyse Facebook’s internal “experiments" with software and share that information with its Oversight Board. The board already has a system in place to advise Facebook but has complained that the company is not forthcoming with the data needed to make decisions. Raw internal research—like the kind exposed in Haugen’s document dump—could lend greater weight to its directions (or orders from a new agency) to make Facebook’s sites healthier. For instance, it could order Facebook to elevate authoritative news sources, as it did after the November election; add a feature requiring users to click a link before sharing something; or make time-off prompts for the most addicted users.

And four, mandate regular disclosure for researchers. Facebook should be required to release data on what’s happening on its site (with the right privacy protections), such as what posts are most shared or what political ads are being clicked on. Only then can academics outside the company analyse its systems and report on their findings.

None of these ideas are particularly new. Similar suggestions by various civil rights and privacy advocates until now have been met with silence and inaction from politicians. But their work has laid a critical foundation for Haugen’s testimony to finally gain momentum. US lawmakers will want to hear what they think of her ideas, and hopefully, when they reach out to such groups for feedback, they will hear some consensus.

Unlock a world of Benefits! From insightful newsletters to real-time stock tracking, breaking news and a personalized newsfeed – it's all here, just a click away! Login Now!

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Published: 07 Oct 2021, 11:11 PM IST
Next Story footLogo
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App