The Facebook Leaks
A close look at the dark world inside Facebook
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Whistleblowers are people, typically employees, who expose information about a private, public or government organisation. We’ve seen various examples in the past decades from the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, and many others.
But there has recently been a relatively unknown exposure that might shatter our relation with technology in the coming years. It is known as the Facebook Files.
These Files are internal Facebook documents leaked to The Wall Street Journal and the American Congress. The full extent of the content of these documents is still unknown; however, these files clearly show that the company is aware of the ill effects of its platform. Even the US congress highlighted some of these issues, yet it failed to address them until today!
The following is a synopsis of the most worrying discoveries so far:
- On Facebook, all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others. According to the company, its rules apply to everyone. But these documents show that this is not the case, and there is a secret group of elites with special privileges on the social platform. On the one hand, Mark Zuckerberg boasts that his companies place people and high-profile individuals on the same footing, yet on the other hand, the company built a system that exempts them from some or all of its rules. The program responsible for this is called Cross-Check and shields millions of VIPs from the company’s regular enforcement. Unfortunately, this protection has led to many cases of abuse since these people are free to post harassing comments or even incite violence — something which average users are forbidden to do. Of course, such restrictions are essential to ensure that people act civilly online. Still, when you lift them for people who have a big following, you are essentially igniting a time bomb which may lead to trolling, online lynching and potential physical harm.
2. On Facebook, the virtual world is not the real world. When we browse through social media, the program shows us what we want to see and not what’s happening around us. It is so sensitive that we can easily hack it. To give you an example, if I want to buy a property, all I have to do is visit a handful of property sites, LIKE some property pages and kaboom; I start getting property adverts similar to my searches.
Many people (especially the young ones) who do not understand how Facebook works let the algorithm control them. They start seeing tiny snapshots of their friends and acquaintances while they’re having fun.
Finally, they experience the social pressure to LIKE those posts, thus instructing Facebook to show them similar photos. So now they’ve entered a vicious circle of seeing lovely photos and LIKING them.
Since people can access Facebook from anywhere, the effect of this is that while you’re having a bad day and you try to escape by logging into social media, these photos will pop up and make your life seem miserable in comparison. Rather than relieve the person, social media eventually worsens the situation, and study after study confirms that it may play a role in depression.
This process is not an accidental byproduct of social media, but the platform exploits this effect by design. The Facebook Files reveal that the company is aware that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) is toxic for many teen girls.
Their internal studies confirm that Instagram is much more harmful to a sizable percentage of teens than other social platforms. Rather than tackling the mental-health issues seriously, Facebook has repeatedly played down these effects.
3. Money makes Facebook go round. In 2018, the company noticed that user engagement declined, so they tried to improve it under the guise of making the platform better. The publicised reason was rather noble: making the social media site healthier by fostering interaction between family and friends.
But in reality, according to the Facebook Files, these changes were having an adverse effect on people resulting in angrier interactions between them. The engineers at Facebook put forward some proposals to improve the situation, but Mark Zuckerberg blocked them because he feared that people would interact less.
4. Facebook, the land where the law is weak. All sorts of people and organisations use the platform. Thus it is not surprising that drug cartels, human traffickers and terrorists are active on it.
Documents found in the Facebook files clearly show that many employees raised alarms about the use of Facebook, especially in developing countries where its customers are expanding rapidly. According to these reports, users in the Middle East use Facebook to lure women into human trafficking.
Ethiopian armed militia uses the platform as a megaphone to incite violence against ethnic minorities. And the list of shame continues with episodes of illegal pornography, organ selling, and government actions to quench dissent. In many cases, these alerts fall on deaf ears, and when they do take action, it is inadequate to cull the abuses.
5. Facebook losing control. Sometimes we wonder who is controlling facebook. The thought the Mark Zuckerberg and the board of directors might be exerting all of this control on people is quite scary.
But the reality is even grimmer. During the height of the pandemic, Mark Zuckerberg decided to showcase Facebook as a global force of social good. In one of his memos, exposed in the Facebook Files, he wanted the global vaccination drive to be a “top company priority”. The effect was the inverse. Anti-vaxxers and other activists used the platform to spread their message using Facebook’s tools, effectively creating a “barrier to vaccination”.
They sowed doubt, downplayed the severity of the pandemic and ruthlessly attacked the restrictive measures in place. So even though Mark Zuckerberg set a goal, Facebook was not capable of controlling its content.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure that the coming months will reveal other issues related to the platform we all use. What’s for sure is that we cannot turn a blind eye to many of them.
Maybe the time has come to take a step backwards, study these issues seriously and find solutions for the good of everyone, rather than proceed high speed towards a global brick wall.
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.