Whistleblower Exposes Facebook Internal Records

Before leaving Facebook—now known as Meta Platforms—former employee Frances Haugen downloaded thousands of internal documents, which she recently provided to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A redacted version of these files, known as the “Facebook papers,” was given to Congress and a number of news organizations. The documents expose the social media platform’s tendency to prioritise profitability over monitoring content, which leaves users vulnerable to misinformation. 

The papers showed that Mark Zuckerberg, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Meta, made public statements that falsified the company’s actions. For example, Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress that Facebook removes 94% of hate speech without user reporting; however, according to a report from INSIDER, the documents included research indicating that the company actually takes down only 5% of posted hate speech. 

Furthermore, the documents reveal that the company prioritizes maximizing user engagement over user safety. One report from 2019 tracked a dummy account impersonating a conservative mother, and, in just a few days, the algorithm led her to QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory movement linked to the January 6 Capitol riot. In addition, since 2017, algorithms have drawn more attention to posts that were reacted to with angry emojis, as opposed to positive ones. Posts that evoke anger, which often contain misinformation, are proven to engage users better. 

After the 2020 presidential election, Facebook loosened its policies surveilling content that spread misinformation or encouraged violence. For instance, a ban placed on the “Stop the Steal” group was not extended to others in the same campaign. The Facebook Papers also revealed that the company is aware of its inaction against hate speech outside North America, with only 16% of the company’s efforts targeting countries outside the United States. 

The internal documents also show that high-profile accounts are regulated differently—for instance, former president Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts were rarely taken down by the platform. In the past, Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s lack of intervention by rationalizing that Facebook never claimed to be an “arbiter of truth.” However, according to the documents, XCheck, the system that exempts celebrity accounts from some or all of the company guidelines, was created by Facebook to prevent public relations backlash from high-profile accounts.

Over the last ten years, the primary age demographic on Facebook has increased as young adults have turned to other platforms for their social media. Many young users view the site negatively, partly because of concerns over invasions of privacy. Rose Fieldman ’23 said, “I feel like I am desensitized [to these violations] because I know that it’s been happening my whole life and I’ve been educated about it.” On the other hand, Antonia Toro ’24 said, “The fact that social media platforms retain personal information makes me uncomfortable. I’ve become more reluctant to use those sites when I notice the algorithm using my private information for advertising or other purposes.” 

Social media is also criticized for having negative effects on young adults’ and adolescents’ mental wellbeing: Instagram, another social media platform owned by Facebook, has recently come under fire for being especially detrimental to the mental health of teenage girls. Kiera Dwan ’24 says the implications of social media on adolescents is twofold: “It can spread misinformation in terms of news and politics, but it also [impacts] how teenagers view themselves. [We] are bound to compare [ourselves], [and] social media amplifies this, decreasing confidence and trapping people in a constant cycle of trying to be someone else.” 

The company has decided to delay the release of a version of Instagram designed for children. Coincidentally, Facebook’s rebranding as Meta, an ambition that has been in progress for years, has come at the perfect time to transition away from its reputation of a scandal-ridden social media platform.