How I Know Facebook Can’t Fix the Problems It Profits From
I worked with the social media giant in an effort to deal with online hate and disinformation until it seemed to move on after Trump was elected.
A young, horny, inebriated Mark Zuckerberg never imagined the immature website he created in his dorm room to rank the hotness of Harvard girls would eventually evolve into one of the world’s biggest drivers of anti-vaccine disinformation during a pandemic that has killed millions.
One would think this urgent global crisis would inspire Facebook, which now has over 2 billion users, global influence, and ownership of Instagram and Whatsapp, to use its immense financial and human resources to proactively and aggressively remove anti-vaccination disinformation and bad faith actors.
If you believe this, you also probably think billionaires might spend their obscene wealth during these calamitous times on raising workers’ wages, fighting hunger and investing in infrastructure. Instead, they are locked in a race to escape Earth altogether. And, based on my own experience working with Facebook, I would bet heavily against them ever doing the right thing.
There’s no reason this for-profit company would voluntarily invest an insane amount of time and money in fixing a problem when doing so would anger millions of conservative users who feed off disinformation, and would alienate a powerful political party that actively promotes the disinformation those users crave.
At least we can be grateful that Zuckerberg hasn’t created his own phallus rocket—yet—and is still Earth-bound, waving an American flag while water-skiing to John Denver.
In 2016, during the last year of Obama’s presidency, I worked with Facebook headquarters to organize and host several hackathons around the world in which local talent would come together to identify pressing problems concerning online hate and disinformation, and respond by creating unique digital solutions.
President Biden’s recent statement that Facebook is “killing people,” which he later walked back, was a tad hyperbolic. It’s often easy to ignore thousands of individuals who work at Facebook and instead view the corporate behemoth as a villainous, all-consuming Unicron death planet. However, many of its employees try, in their own small way, to use their privilege and resources to push the company, and its leadership, to respond to these challenges and be more proactive. I was lucky enough to engage with some of these individuals, who supported our endeavors.
In every hackathon, the participants kept citing disinformation and online hate on social media platforms as one of the biggest drivers of inciting violence and discrimination against marginalized communities. I agree with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the nation’s Surgeon General, when he said, “the reality is that misinformation is still spreading like wildfire in our country, aided and abetted by technology platforms.” Facebook accelerates that fire with its algorithms and platform that allow lies, fake news and sensationalism to spread faster than the truth and gain more engagement with a global audience. In the past two weeks, coronavirus infections have surged over 200 percent in the United States, feasting on the unvaccinated, many of whom are being fed a daily diet of anti-science and anti vaxx fear-mongering thanks to a conservative media ecosystem.
If disinformation is a virus, then Facebook is its willing host, allowing bad faith, right-wing actors, and our enemies abroad like Russia, to manipulate its algorithms and functionality to attack science and promote death. The Center for Countering Digital Hate identified 12 online personalities, “the disinformation dozen,” who are responsible for 73 percent of all anti-vaccine content on Facebook alone, where they have their largest detrimental footprint. About 95 percent of COVID-19 misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook was not removed.
This isn’t shocking to anyone who’s been following Facebook’s lackadaisical and reckless failure to self-regulate. Five years ago, many of us were trying to do our part to find some solutions. Each of our hackathons yielded fantastic winning ideas, which included a crowdsourcing app that would allow allies to intervene during a pile-on, a YouTube channel in Indonesia debunking fake news, a Facebook app for Filipinos that would allow them to monitor and self-censor their own posts, and an app for anxiety and depression for young adults in Bangladesh who don’t have access to mental health professionals.
Unfortunately, Facebook, which has an ungodly sum of money, never followed up and supported these winning teams despite our best efforts to guide and mentor them with their limited seed funding. From our experience, Facebook HQ was more interested in generating positive local press, getting photo-ops, currying favor with international governments, checking all the right PR boxes, and then quickly moving on. What started off as a well-intentioned effort to respond to the global misuse of Facebook quickly died after Trump’s election. We were told that they were pausing some of their existing efforts to combat online hate, such as our hackathons, because they wanted to wait and see the Trump administration’s priorities.
Asked about that, a Facebook representative, speaking on background, said “This is not the case. In fact, we continued to sponsor a global program— the P2P program—throughout the Trump administration. We planned and ran a series of Hackathons with Affinis [the social innovation firm where I was the creative director] and did all of them but once they were complete, we focused our funding on the P2P program and other programs to counter hate and extremism.”
In any event, Trump’s priorities were no secret. He ran on a Muslim ban and a border wall, he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” and once elected he made more than 30,000 false statements, by one count. At his 2019 White House “Social Media Summit,” Trump invited extremist right-wing activists, including Ali Alexander, who helped plan the Jan. 6 insurrection, QAnon conspiracy peddler Bill Mitchell, and “reporter” James O’Keefe of Project Veritas who was suspended from Twitter earlier this year for operating fake accounts.
Given Facebook’s interest in keeping the president of the United States happy and its profits rolling in, it’s safe to say fighting hate and disinformation was never going to be on the top of his to-do list.
However, this could have been a priority for Zuckerberg, if he actually cared about how his website was being used and abused to promote harmful lies and disinformation. Instead, Zuckerberg and other social media giants bent the knee to Trump, allowing him to use their platforms as propaganda outlets to bypass a confrontational press and instead spread unchallenged hate, air petty grievances, and rage against enemies, critics and windmills. In 2019, Zuckerberg had a previously undisclosed dinner at the White House with Trump and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who also pals around with white nationalists, while he was in Washington DC to testify before Congress.
Only after Trump lost the election and incited the violent insurrection did Facebook decide to ban Trump. Zuckerberg even cowardly punted that decision to Facebook’s own self-created “supreme court” instead of showing true leadership and doing it himself. Why risk personal skin in the game when Facebook wins regardless of which political party is in power?
I asked entrepreneur Shahed Amanullah, my former business associate who co-organized the hackathons, for his thoughts on why Facebook wasn’t more aggressive in fighting disinformation.
“An effective countermeasure to hate speech and disinformation on the web would basically remove half of conservative conversation on Facebook and that’s a line they’re not willing to cross,” Amanullah concluded. “They’re paralyzed. If they want to be effective that’s what they have to do, and they all know it.”
A recent NPR analysis of social media backed up Amanullah’s claim. Ben Shapiro’s website The Daily Wire uses rage and recycled content to generate “more Facebook engagement on its articles than The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News and CNN combined.” In fact, Facebook is dominated by right-wing personalities and conservative outlets. On social media, conservative media is the “mainstream media.” There is no “anti-conservative bias.” Facebook hired conservative Joel Kaplan, a former George W. Bush official, to be the head of its Washington D.C. office to mollify Republican anger. In fact, these social media platforms thrive off conservatives’ harmful content, especially when it comes to misleading claims about vaccines.
“Algorithms on social media platforms are primed for engagement. The anti-vaxxers know this and are very well organized to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement driven ecosystem on Big Tech platforms,” Anjana Susarla, Omura-Saxena Professor of Responsible AI at Michigan State University, told me. Specifically, these right-wing actors have discovered and exploited a “grey area” in Facebook’s content moderation to promote their attacks on vaccines and science. The phenomenon has been described as “lying through truth.” For example, NPR found that articles connecting vaccines and death were the most highly engaged online content of the year, promoted by anti-vaxxers, Russian state media, and, of course, conservative outlets like The Daily Wire, which published “numerous stories about potential side-effects from COVID-19 vaccines, but none that portrayed the scientifically demonstrated efficacy of the vaccines or that focused explicitly on the hesitancy that has slowed U.S. roll out.”
Susarla gives Facebook credit for recently being more proactive in removing and labeling misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, but said these stories about vaccine side effects are ultimately “more insidious.” Unfortunately, this content does not live in a vacuum, but instead spreads and thrives, contaminating and misleading people across the world. A recent poll revealed that 20 percent of Americans are now convinced the COVID-19 vaccines have microchips that will allow Bill Gates and the “Deep State” to spy on them. Yet, they are perfectly fine reading and spreading this disinformation on their smartphones, which literally track their locations. Nearly 80 percent of vaccine-hesitant Americans said they will refuse to get the vaccines. Instead, we now have otherwise sane, rational individuals posting videos of themselves trying to stick forks to their heads because they falsely believe COVID-19 vaccines have magnets in them. Even after seeing over 600,000 Americans die, and reading reports of the deadly Delta variant crushing unvaccinated populations, primarily Trump voters, these individuals are voluntarily choosing death because they’ve been conditioned to distrust science, medicine, vaccines and Dr. Fauci, whom the conservative media has re-imagined as Dr. Doom.
Susarla recommends Facebook and social media companies begin aggressively deplatforming known sources of vaccine disinformation, following in the footsteps of Twitter’s recent suspension of GOP Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who falsely tweeted that COVID-19 was not dangerous for people unless they were obese or older than 65. Meanwhile, just this week, 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson of Georgia died from COVID-19, and Missouri hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, many of whom are under 65 and not obese. When asked if she took the vaccine, Greene responded by saying the question violated her HIPPA rights, thereby confirming that she’s both vaccinated and has no idea what HIPPA means.
Ultimately, Susarla believes Facebook will not be transparent, absent regulatory pressure from Congress. “There has to be regulatory pressure in terms of auditing Big Tech platforms where independent researchers and fact checkers can independently verify claims from Facebook,” she told me. “Facebook has pushed back saying they removed millions of pieces of anti-vaxx info. However, we have no statistics on how much engagement these posts got.”
We can’t trust Facebook and Big Tech to self-regulate and do the right thing voluntarily. They have failed each and every time, unwilling to be both transparent and proactive to address the immense damage their platforms are causing not only in spreading anti-vaccine disinformation, but also harming our democracy, attacking truth, and spreading hate against marginalized communities at home and abroad. Unless Congress and all of us as private actors push and punish them to act, we can be assured they won’t.
Amanullah agrees and predicts, “Facebook has to carry disinformation or die, and they won’t commit suicide.”
In the meantime, it seems the unvaccinated will do the dying instead.