By: Prema Rahman and M Baqir Mohie El-Deen, MPAC Policy Bureau
The discussion around Facebook, Inc. intensified this week as the global tech company was brought into the limelight twice this week. On Sunday, whistleblower Frances Haugen, former product manager on the civic misinformation team at Facebook, went public on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Haugen’s identity was unknown when she leaked internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal and then filed for whistleblower protection with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). She claims that Facebook, a publicly traded company that includes Whatsapp and Instagram, puts “profit over safety,” while the social media giant claims differently to their shareholders. Haugen used the SEC to out Facebook, but the discussion is grander than Facebook misrepresenting its internal workings to their shareholders.
Many argue that the multinational corporation is operating a monopoly that has too much power and control over products that many Americans and the world now rely on. This was demonstrated on Monday, when Facebook had its longest ever blackout in its history, obstructing the use of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram globally. Much of the world has become dependent on Facebook Inc.’s products, like in Iraq where the nation is set to go and vote for a new government this month. Iraqi political commentators bantered that the outage is the perfect time for a coup; however, as the old English proverb states, “there’s a grain of truth in every joke.”
Beyond the Arab Spring Protests that were fueled by social media resulting in new governments around the Middle East, it is argued that social media has changed the world in all four corners of the globe. Domestically, we saw how President Obama used social media to win the historic 2008 election, and we witnessed how President Trump used social media to get into the White House, and then orchestrate the January 6th Insurrection earlier this year.
Silicon Valley veteran and Former Adviser of Technology to the State Department Shahed Amanullah argued that the reasoning behind Facebook’s blackout is not good regardless if the blackout occurred due to a hacker from the outside, or an internal mistake. He stated that the reality is that everything went dark due to a single configuration mishap. Amanullah compares the need for technological diversity to the need for genetic diversity in the biological world, which is said to make us healthier. Facebook’s acquisition of most major platforms of communication has hampered digital diversity and configurations because all these once independent platforms are now under a single umbrella and configuration, creating the ability for all to go out with a single faulty configuration. Amanullah states that the blackout weighs greatly in favor of those asking for Facebook, Inc. to be broken down into several entities, so that if one platform goes down, the rest are not affected.
And this is not all for Facebook. As the whistleblower recently revealed, the plethora of discussions around Facebook include Facebook’s algorithm which is set to divide the population, causing polarization of opinions. Facebook recently paused it’s new Instagram Kids app, which is said to cause harm to the youngest of us. In fact, as per Haugen, Facebook is fully aware that the Instagram app has proven to be dangerous to teenagers, yet they have not taken any steps to reconcile that problem, further confirming Facebook’s prioritization of profits over people.
The American Muslim community has long suffered at the hands of Facebook’s hunger for financial gains. According to a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “anti-Muslim content finds a home on Facebook” and such content contributes to increased hate crimes against Muslims. In 2019, a Guardian report found that Facebook, driven by financial gains, allowed for far-right groups to thrive on its platform at the expense of the safety and security of American Muslims. Where once, at the dawn of the Arab Spring, many thought of Facebook as a force for good, today, it is clear that without proper regulation and left at the mercy of sheer capitalism, the social media behemoth is not unlike a glorified propaganda machine for hate and harmful content.
Though the revelations of this week carry frightening implications for the privacy of Facebook’s consumers and America’s national security, there is a silver lining here. In the deeply divided landscape of American politics, there is consensus amongst Democrats and Republicans on regulating Facebook. Bipartisan issues are not only more likely to move forward in our legislature, but also provide an opportunity for American Muslims to have their voices heard. American Muslims have been voicing concerns over the social media company’s propensity for spreading fake news and housing hateful or violent content for a good part of the past decade, especially during the Trump Presidency. As the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection clearly showcased, Facebook failed, or perhaps casually overlooked, incendiary posts from insurrectionists alleging election fraud and undermining the very foundation of American democracy.
Haugen’s testimony and supporting data indicate that if unchecked, Facebook Inc.’s prioritization of profits over wellbeing and democracy is a security concern that impacts every American. This week’s events offer an opportunity for Americans to unite under a single demand to hold Facebook to greater accountability and higher standards of privacy, user safety, and national security.