Is Facebook facing a “Big Tobacco moment”?

·Senior Editor
·7-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, is facing a fresh wave of criticism in response to accusations from a former employee that the company knowingly made decisions that put profit over the public good.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published a series of stories based on leaked internal Facebook documents that show the company was aware that its products — which include Instagram and WhatsApp, in addition to the main Facebook platform — cause significant harm, but didn’t act to fix the problem. The Journal’s reports include claims that Facebook knew Instagram was toxic to young girls’ self-esteem, allowed popular accounts to avoid its content rules, failed to stop illegal activity like drug trafficking, struggled to contain COVID misinformation and made changes to its algorithms that rewarded inflammatory content.

Those documents were leaked by Frances Haugen, a data scientist hired by Facebook to help combat election misinformation. Haugen testified before Congress on Tuesday, accusing the company of “buying its profits with our safety.” The company has said characterizations of its decision making in the Journal’s reporting and Haugen’s testimony are unfair.

Facebook was dealt a different sort of blow on Monday, when a critical outage rendered its network and its affiliate apps unaccessible for hours.

Why there’s debate

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Haugen’s testimony was a “Big Tobacco moment” for Facebook — a reference to past revelations that major cigarette companies knew their products were addictive and deadly. Facebook has weathered a number of scandals in recent years, but some industry experts agree with Blumenthal’s assessment that the company is facing a “moment of reckoning.”

They argue that this latest crisis is different from previous ones because it suggests that Facebook’s leadership was actively complicit in the damage its products does, rather than simply being taken advantage of by bad actors. Some argue that the combined pressures of public outrage, employee discontent and potential hits to the company’s stock price may be enough to convince CEO Mark Zuckerberg to change Facebook’s underlying structures that boost controversial content. Recent critical statements by lawmakers from both parties also suggest that Congress may have the momentum to pass legislation that forces Big Tech firms to adjust their business models.

Skeptics, however, predict that this latest scandal will pass with little substantive change. They say that, as much as Facebook’s public image has suffered in recent years, the company has only become more powerful and profitable. As long as Facebook has a business incentive to permit and even promote harmful content, it will continue to do so. Others add that making fundamental changes to a collection of apps used by billions of people around the world may be too large a task. There is also significant doubt that Congress can overcome its many flaws to pass meaningful legislation that changes Facebook’s business practices.

What’s next

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault is also reportedly interested in interviewing Haugen about how Facebook may have been used to facilitate violence at the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers from both parties called on Zuckerberg to testify before Congress, though no hearing date has been set.

Perspectives

Optimists

Enough public outrage could force Facebook to change

“Like tobacco, Facebook is a dangerous product one uses at one’s own risk. It’s worth noting, however, that tobacco use in this country declined not just because it was regulated, but also because people became educated to its perils.” — Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald

Facebook may be more vulnerable than most people think

“Facebook is in trouble. Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble. What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize. It’s a cloud of existential dread that hangs over an organization whose best days are behind it, influencing every managerial priority and product decision and leading to increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out.” — Kevin Roose, New York Times

Investor confidence may be waning

“Investors who have held on to the stock throughout the controversies should realize that this time, the company’s Teflon shield may finally be cracking.” — Therese Poletti, MarketWatch

Haugen provided a roadmap for fixing Facebook

“Regulators have been at a loss for how to deal with Facebook up to now, but Haugen’s cool-headed suggestions coupled with internal details on how Facebook's systems are set up could provide a clearer way forward.” — Parmy Olson, Bloomberg

Congress may finally be fed up with Facebook

“A key reason why this latest scandal feels more significant is that politicians on both sides of the aisle feel deceived by Facebook.” — Shirin Ghaffary, Recode

Skeptics

It’s not in Facebook’s business interest to combat harmful content

“The social media giant pledged to ‘tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content.’ But as long as the social network makes money off such garbage, such a promise comes across as a sick joke rather than reassurance.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

Even a major user revolt wouldn’t be enough to force Facebook’s hand

“Could enough people come together to bring down the empire? Probably not. Even if Facebook lost 1 billion users, it would have another 2 billion left. But we need to recognize the danger we’re in. We need to shake the notion that Facebook is a normal company, or that its hegemony is inevitable.” — Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic

Facebook has proven it will pursue profit over everything else

“Despite the executive team’s awareness of these serious problems, despite congressional hearings and scripted pledges to do better, despite Zuckerberg’s grandiose mission statements that change with the tides of public pressure, Facebook continues to shrug off the great responsibility that comes with the great power and wealth it has accumulated.” — Jathan Sadowski, The Guardian

Facebook’s flaws are fundamental to its existence

“It may in fact be the case that the platform is corrupt by its very nature—and that talk of a safer Facebook ... is a bit like the ‘safer cigarettes’ tobacco companies began marketing in response to health concerns more than half a century ago.” — Eric Lutz, Vanity Fair

Lawmakers’ tough words won’t lead to actual legislation

“Congress has been hauling in Facebook executives to testify since early 2018, during the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In those three and a half years, it has passed precisely zero laws significantly regulating the conduct of social media platforms. Instead, with some notable exceptions, it tends to do what it spent most of the latest hearing doing: browbeating the companies into fixing things themselves.” — Gilad Edelman, Wired

Company leadership isn’t up to the task of fixing Facebook

“The issues, which become clear in all of this reporting, are not of a company that is nefariously run by evil geniuses toying with people’s minds (as some would have you believe). … It seems pretty clear that they are decently smart, and decently competent people … who have ended up in an impossible situation and don’t recognize that they can’t solve it all alone.” — Mike Masnick, Techdirt

Facebook is too big to reform

“These are clearly problems of scale, which Facebook has had many years to deal with and has been fundamentally unable to, for the simple reason that it has never stopped chasing growth at all costs. This could be framed as an issue of priorities that Facebook can still rectify with ‘help,’ but the issue is complicated when the problems exist precisely because of Facebook’s size.” — Edward Ongweso Jr., Vice

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to the360@yahoonews.com.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting