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Congress Must Force Facebook to Make Internal Research Public, Whistleblower Testifies

Frances Haugen testifies in front of the Senate studying protecting kids online after revealing herself as Facebook whistleblower.

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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies in front of Senate committee on October 5.

WASHINGTON, October 5, 2021 – The former Facebook employee who outed herself as the whistleblower who leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal that showed Facebook knew its photo-sharing app Instagram contributed to harming the mental health of kids told a Senate committee that the company’s alleged profit-driven motives means the company’s internal research cannot be kept behind closed doors.

Frances Haugen testified Tuesday in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security, which is looking into protecting kids online, after identifying herself Sunday on the television program 60 Minutes as the person who gave the Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission documents showing the company going forward with development of a kids version of Instagram despite knowing the mental health impact its apps have on that demographic. (Facebook has since halted development of the kids app after the Journal story and lawmakers asking for it to be suspended.)

“We should not expect Facebook to change. We need action from Congress,” Haugen said Tuesday.

That action, she recommended, includes forcing Facebook to make all future internal research fully public because the company cannot be trusted to act on its own commissioned work.

Haugen noted that the reason the company did not — and does not — take such action, which could include preemptively shutting down development of its Instagram for kids product, is because the company is allegedly driven by a profit-first model.

“Facebook repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved those conflicts in favor of its own profits,” alleged Haugen, who now considers herself an advocate for public oversight of social media.

“The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization — and undermining societies around the world. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people. In other cases, their profit optimizing machine is generating self-harm and self-hate — especially for vulnerable groups, like teenage girls. These problems have been confirmed repeatedly by Facebook’s own internal research.”

Despite calls to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields large tech platforms from legal liability for what their users post, Haugen said that – and tweaks to its outdated privacy protections – won’t be enough.

Facebook has for months touted it removes millions of groups and accounts that violate its community guidelines on hate speech and inciting violence. But Haugen alleges that despite the claims that it actively makes its platforms safer, in actuality, it only takes down three to five percent of those threats.

Asked by Senator Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, if Facebook “ever found a feature on its platform harmed its users, but the feature moved forward because it would also grow users or increase revenue,” Frances said yes, alleging the company prioritized ease of resharing over the feature’s susceptibility to growing “hate speech, misinformation or violence incitement,” even though the feature would only “decrease growth a tiny, little amount.”

She also alleged that those directions came from the head of the company himself, Mark Zuckerberg, who allegedly chose arbitrary or vague “metrics defined by Facebook, like meaningful social interactions over changes that would have significantly decreased misinformation, hate speech and other inciting content.”

Facebook’s troubles, up to this point

Facebook has already been the target of Washington’s ire for months now. It has been cited as an alleged enabler of the January 6 Capitol Hill riot that sought to stop the transition to a Joe Biden presidency, despite the platform banning former president Donald Trump. Its platform had also been blamed for allowing the spread of information that has led to violence in parts of the world, including genocide in Myanmar.

The platform has already been accused of suppressing stories from progressive news outlets and censors information that conflicts with its own personal interest, and that its algorithms deliver the same kinds of information to people so they are not exposed to different viewpoints, as a number of public interest groups have claimed.

In 2018, Facebook made worldwide news after reports in the Guardian and the New York Times found nearly 100 million Facebook profiles were harvested by a company called Cambridge Analytica, which used the data to build profiles of people to provide them with material that made them sway in a political direction.

Federal regulators have already been looking to deal with Facebook and other Big Tech companies, as that has one clear agenda item of the Biden administration. The White House has already perched Amazon critic Lina Khan as the head of the Federal Trade Commission, which has recently filed a monopoly complaint against the company in court, and other figures, including Google critic Jonathan Kanter to the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.

Facebook’s week has gone from bad to worse. Haugen, a former Facebook product manager and Harvard MBA graduate, testified in a hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online” before the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security Hearing on Tuesday. Previous opposition to Facebook’s plans to expand its products to minors has come from external parties like public interest groups and Congress.

Reporter Riley Steward is a writer from Denton, Texas, who graduated from The University of Texas' Business Honors Program. He has written for various publications including The Recording Academy Grammy.com. He currently lives and writes in New York City.

International

Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet

Social media platforms are harming Iran due to their ignorance of Iranian culture and the nation’s primary dialects.

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Photo of Mahsa Alimardani, Iran program officer for Article19, from March 2018 by ITU Pictures

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A lack of cultural understanding by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms is a prevailing reason for inaccurate content moderation in Iran, Middle East experts said.

Moreover, and they said, Iran’s proposed international internet replacement, the National Information Network, is dangerously close to coming into effect.

Speaking at a Thursday event of the Atlantic Council designed to draw attention to the current status of social media in Iran, a human rights expert said that Big Tech’s chronic misunderstanding of the Persian language leads to censorship of content that is either entertainment-based or posted by Iranian activists.

Panelists at the event also highlighted a new report “Iranians on #SocialMedia,” as the inspiration for the discussion.

Facebook “needs someone who actually understands what is going on on the ground,” claimed Simin Kargar, a human rights and technology research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab. Because the company don’t employ or contract with such people, said Kargar, the platform and its sister Instagram are inappropriately censoring posts in the country.

Because of the platforms’ negligence in understanding and adapting to local concerns, the Iranian people are not benefiting from the internet.

And – because Iran also heavily monitoring and censoring the internet within its borders, the Iranian people end up being hindered by the double-whammy of Iranian and Facebook censorship, Kargar said.

Iranian censorship and Facebook censorship

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the human rights organization Article19, agreed that misconceptions due to language are a dangerous foe. She made this comment when asked what America can do to help and whether American sanctions have played play a part in the rise in content moderation.

All panelists at the event said that while American sanctions against Iran impact the internet in the country, they are not responsible for what is currently happening in Iran.

However, Alimardani also blamed Meta, the new corporate name for the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, for improper and excessive content moderation.

She said Facebook currently flag anything related to the Iranian guard after the Trump Administration created a list of dangerous people that should be restricted on social media. She disagreed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

Is the National Information Network a new model for authoritarian regimes?

The National Information Network, the new censored internet that Iran is currently working to implement, had been planned to launch in March. Alimardani said she believes that the release will be postponed because of disagreements about who within the government will control content moderation, and the impact the firewall could have on Iranian tech companies.

Alimardani highlighted the unique nature of the Iranian law that created the national internet. Instead of being voted on by the Iranian Parliament, the legislative body deferred action on the creation of a permanent national internet only until after an experimental period with the firewall, she said.

Yet the government has been pushing its own online streaming and video platforms. These platforms are part of the government’s attempt to incentivize an Iranian national “internet.”

Throwing cheap broadband into a censored internet to sweeten the pot?

Essentially, said Kargar, the government is promising more bandwidth at a lower cost through the National Information Network. The new network is also appealing to Iranian consumers because the NIN will primarily be in the country’s major dialect.

Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia”, also spoke on the NIN. She said it would take Iran back to the Middle Ages, and also limit communication with other Iranians and with the outside world.

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Social Media

Vague Social Media Laws Create Fear in the Middle East. Can Encryption Tools Help?

Experts discuss how social media is being treated in the Middle East and how to respond.

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Chris Meserole, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2022 – Far from being the savior of democracy in the Middle East, four experts said Monday that social media, and government regulation of it, is beginning to hurt civil rights activists.

The world is witnessing an increase in laws restricting social media access and hence regulating freedom of speech, especially in the Middle East, agreed the panelists, speaking at a Brookings Institution event.

Dina Hussein, the head of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at Facebook, and Chris Meserole, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated that too many countries are passing vague laws about what is and isn’t allowed on social media.

These new laws are purposefully unclear, they said. This new strategy has made it easier for the government to take down posts and restrict critics’ internet access while leaving up the posts of supporters and government officials.

These laws also spread fear within the regime because the vagueness puts anyone at risk of being arrested for something they post, they said.

When asked what can be done, Hussein said that Facebook promotes honesty through a website that focuses on Facebook’s own transparency and raises awareness of other countries’ laws for their users. In addition, Facebook is personally working to support civil rights activists in the areas of the world that are implementing such laws, Hussein said.

Encryption to avoid surveillance

Meserole said that democratic governments should not be fighting “fire with fire.” Instead, he wants civil rights groups in the Middle East to strengthen their ability to operate without social media. Many activists rely on social media to build their bases and spread their message. So, Meserole emphasized that as the authoritarian regimes increase their abilities to watch, manipulate, and censor social media, democratic governments should invest in technology that will help those who are fighting for civil rights encrypt their media or work outside of the surveillance of government.

Another concern of the guest speakers was the rise in online misinformation and the trend of authoritarian regimes making new accounts to promote their message rather than trying to censor the language of the opposition.

Some people wonder why these groups don’t just eliminate media within their countries. Meserole’s answer is that the government has it is own various benefits to having social media, and so they pass vague internet laws that allow them to have more legal control instead.

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Free Speech

Former GOP Congressman and UK MP Highlight Dangers of Disinformation and Urge Regulation

Will Hurd and Member of Parliament Damien Collins say disinformation on social media platforms a worry in midterm elections.

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Photo of Will Hurd from March 2016 by Paul Morigi used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 11, 2022 – Former Republican Rep. Will Hurd said that disinformation campaigns could have a very concerning effect on the upcoming midterm elections.

He and the United Kingdom’s Member of Parliament Damien Collins  urged new measures to hold tech and social media companies accountable for disinformation.

Hurd particularly expressed concern about how disinformation sows doubts about the legitimacy of the elections and effective treatments to the COVID-19 virus. The consequences of being misinformed on these topics is quite significant, he and Collins said Tuesday during a webinar hosted by the Washington Post.

The Texan Hurd said that the American 2020 election was the most secure the nation has ever had, and yet disinformation around it led to the insurrection at the Capitol.

The British Collins agreed that democratic elections are particularly at risk. Some increased risk comes from ever-present disinformation around COVID and its effects on public health and politics. “A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence, and in some cases even loss of life,” he said.

In regulating tech and media companies, Collins said citizens are reliant on whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and self-serving reports from companies that manipulate their data.

Unless government gets involved, they said, the nation will remain ignorant of the spread of disinformation.

Tech companies need to increase their transparency, even though that is something they are struggling to do.

Yet big tech companies are constantly conducting research and surveillance on their audience, the performance of their services, and the effect of their platforms. Yet they fail to share this information with the public, and he said that the public has a right to know the conclusions of these companies’ research.

In addition to increasing transparency and accountability, many lawmakers are attempting to grapple with the spread of disinformation. Some propose various changes to Section 230 of the Telecom Act of 1996.

Hurd said that the issues surrounding Section 230 will not be resolved before the midterm elections, and he recommended that policy-makers take steps outside of new legislation.

For example, the administration of President Joe Biden could lead its own federal reaction to misinformation to help citizens differentiate between fact and fiction, said Hurd.

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