In a recent leak of Facebook internal documents by former employee Frances Haugen, it became evident that Facebook knows its services and products are harmful to mental health. They have known this for a long time and have done little to curb the harmful effects, especially on teenage girls, of the Facebook platform.
According to the documents, which were leaked by Haugen to the Wall Street Journal, “For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app [Instagram, which is a platform under the Facebook umbrella of apps] affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.”
The current wave of revelations and scrutiny into Facebook’s harmful impacts began when the Wall Street Journal began covering the leaked documents from Haugen in their series titled “The Facebook Files,” on October 1, 2021.
Facebook has been aware of the harm their platforms are perpetrating, yet has often stated the exact opposite to the public of what their own internal research has shown. Back in March 2021, while providing testimony to Congress, in response to being asked whether or not Facebook (and its apps) might harm children, Facebook CEO and Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said, “overall, the research that we have seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits and well-being benefits by helping people feel more connected and less lonely.”
According to Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications and bestselling author of the book Public Relations for Dummies, Facebook’s response will need to change if they hope to regain public trust. Eric said, “That 60 Minutes interview, the congressional testimony, the stories that have followed, and what I consider to be a very disingenuous response by Facebook are going to raise even more eyebrows.”
Facebook began with the mission to “make the world more open and connected.” Yet, as has been widely reported, Facebook’s algorithm functions to increase engagement between its users and the content on the platform. This drive to increase engagement means that people see content that Facebook believes can create more engagement, leading to content that provokes a response. This not only means the platform will show users news and status updates from friends that the user might like, it means the user will see content that may provoke anger and many other negative emotions. In both respects, this creates a world in which users are further entrenched into believing the information of their social bubble and nurturing greater anger towards content outside of their own political, religious, and economic worldview.
Facebook’s current mission statement is to “bring the world closer together.” However, as they have become a platform that functions upon the idea of creating engagement, this does not bring the larger world together, but rather brings people closer together at an increased rate of isolation within the world their algorithm presents to the user.
Yaverbaum also said, “Companies can’t publicly state core values that aren’t aligned with the way that they operate internally. And that’s Facebook.” This presents a dilemma to Facebook, as to whether or not they want to publicly appear as having a noble mission, while at the heart they are focused on acting in ways which place profits over the health of their users.
As for what Facebook can do in order to regain public trust, Yaverbaum says, “Apologizing is great if that’s what you want to do. It ought to be sincere and that’s usually easy to see through if it’s not. But then you gotta do something decisive and meaningful. There’s gotta be some clear path of changes that need to be made and how you are going to make them.”
If Facebook has any hope of returning to its originally stated mission of making the world more “open and connected” at a truly global level, they will need to place this mission as their highest priority without the need for profit as their primary motivation.
This article was published in El Vaquero. The student newspaper of Glendale Community College.