Outage and whistleblower testimony renew focus on dangers of Facebook’s global reach

Facebook is again mired in mounting troubles that have returned it to the spotlight. Tuesday’s testimony by Frances Haugen, a whistleblower, was presented before Congress. She explained how Facebook’s obsession with profits had caused societal damage and urged that the U.S. Congress take action. Many experts agree that it was a damning testimony.

The two events certainly made for awkward timing. Haugen mentioned the outage in her prepared remarks. She used it to highlight not just Facebook’s shortcomings but also its promises.

“I know that for more than five hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies,” she said. “It also means that millions of small businesses weren’t able to reach potential customers and countless photos of new babies weren’t joyously celebrated by family and friends around the world.”

Haugen is a Harvard-educated American — just like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. She addressed the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee on Tuesday. Her focus was on U.S. consumer issues, as well as the results of Facebook’s research regarding the impact on teens’ body images.

But, as Haugen hinted several times, Facebook’s promise and problems ripple far beyond the United States. The global social media company, and the other companies that it controls, have had an enormous impact. The whistleblower suggested that Tuesday she might testify on Facebook’s cyber spying.

“What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying, no one wants to read the end of it,” she told the lawmakers, referring to hate-filled accounts on the site that fueled genocidal violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and to recent ethnic and religious violence in Ethiopia.

The downtime on Facebook and its affiliated apps on Monday may have had a larger impact outside of U.S. borders than within them. As The Post’s Amy Cheng reports, the sudden downing of WhatsApp, though barely noticed in the United States, presented a potentially significant disruption to daily life in much of the world.

“WhatsApp has emerged as a popular alternative to text messages, especially in developing nations where telecommunications services can be prohibitively expensive,” Cheng wrote. “But it is more than just a messaging platform: In Lebanon, for instance, coronavirus tests can be ordered — and results received — via WhatsApp. The Philippine diplomat mission to the United Arab Emirates has a WhatsApp hotline that allows them to contact their citizens. And users in Brazil can use an in-app business directory to search for thousands of food and retail providers.”

Facebook is so prevalent in some parts of the world that when it went down, some assumed it was a total Internet blackout. Elliott said that Internet service advisors in Ghana took to Twitter to blame Facebook.

Facebook has long faced public scrutiny of its role around the world. When Zuckerberg made his own appearance before Congress in 2018, he was pushed to answer questions about Russian troll farms and hate speech in Myanmar (though there were many more questions he was not asked, including ones about Facebook’s role in censorship in Vietnam and ethnic violence in Sri Lanka).

Haugen’s testimony Tuesday wasn’t all focused on this international reach, but her core message did put it in a different light.

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“This inability to see into Facebook’s actual systems and confirm they work as communicated is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway,” she told lawmakers.

Haugen noted Tuesday that Facebook’s adoption of “engagement-based ranking” — a term that refers to the practice of using algorithms to prioritize content in users’ feeds that generate strong reactions — and a focus from 2018 onward on what it dubbed “meaningful social interactions” between users had resulted in angrier, more divisive content.

“Engagement-based ranking” was fanning ethnic violence “in places like Ethiopia,” where opposition parties in the region of Tigray estimated 50,000 civilian deaths in fighting early this year, Haugen said.

With the latest revelations, some U.S. analysts view Facebook as the walking dead. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose noted this week that one takeaway of the Facebook leak is not that the company is all-powerful, but that it is weak — trapped in “a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize.”

However, Roose noted that “Facebook is still growing in countries outside the United States and could succeed there even if it stumbles domestically.” As Elliott wrote for Rest of World, part of the company’s strategy for “exponential” global growth has been by specifically targeting low-income countries with tools like “Facebook Basics.”

As Monday’s outage showed, much of the world has become reliant on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. These services make life much easier for millions. A zombie Facebook that is dead in America but still lingering overseas would be no better for these users. A Facebook that can stand up to scrutiny at home as well as abroad would be more impressive.

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