Facebook: A legacy of broken promises in the New Gilded Age

Facebook Whistleblower Francis Haugen gives testimony and evidence to Facebook’s deliberate disregard for public safety.

Some, including myself, are of the opinion that we are living in a New Gilded Age. One where Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have become reincarnations of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, while public safety has taken a back seat to private interest and economic growth. A time where regulation is a dirty word to half of the political spectrum and many applaud Big Tech executives as paragons of American freedom. Yet at the same time, you can’t throw a penny in a crowded room without hitting someone who thinks social media has had a negative effect on our society. The question for many is whether anything should be done about it.

On Oct. 5, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen delivered a damning testimony before Congress against her former employer, claiming that Facebook has valued its profits over the safety of its users. I believe her testimony is proof that we must curtail the power of corporate influence. 

Haugen earned a degree in computer engineering as well as a Harvard Master’s degree in business. Out of college she first worked for Google, then Pinterest, before starting with Facebook in 2018. In her 2021 testimony, Haugen claims “…I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us. But I am here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.” 

Haugen worked directly with Facebook’s algorithm designers in charge of tracking misinformation and developing new security measures. Before the 2020 election, efforts to crack down on misinformation were reinforced, but according to Haugen the new efforts ceased the moment the election was over. This move is described by Haugen as a “betrayal of democracy,” and sure enough misinformation inspired by the StopTheSteal movement eventually exploded into the deadly Jan. 6 attack on our capital.

Facebook profits off of viewer attention, the more a viewer scrolls, the more money they make. Social experiments conducted by social media companies have learned that fear and outrage generate the most attention from viewers. So, it doesn’t matter to Facebook that #StopTheSteal encouraged hate and violence, the only thing that matters is that it got people scrolling and it only gets bleaker with a global perspective. 

Haugen later claims that despite the fact that only 9% of Facebook users primarily speak English, a whopping 87% of Facebook’s investment in integrity is devoted to English speaking countries, a state of affairs which is as blatantly racist as it is imperialist. 

So, if we are receiving the large majority of protection but we are still contending with hatred and violence like the Jan. 6 attack, what does that say about the stability of other countries? Well, according to The New York Times in “Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook is a Match”, online misinformation has been linked with the rise of authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, and Brazil, as well as ethnic and political violence in Nicaragua, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Myanmar.                                               

The case of Myanmar is particularly troubling. As revealed in the BBC report: “The Country Where Facebook Posts Whipped Up Hate”, internet use is still growing in Myanmar, with about 18 million users by 2018. Facebook’s lack of moderation has led to a flurry of hate and violence towards the Rohingya Muslim minority population. This culminated in ten thousand deaths and as many as a million Rohingya fleeing the country, becoming refugees.

The crisis in Myanmar was one of the many reasons Mark Zuckerberg testified before congress in 2018. Throughout the two-day hearing Zuckerberg apologized, or gave half answers to accusations, and made many promises that his company would review their safety guidelines and practice better self-regulation. Well with Haugen’s testimony, and authoritarian regimes toppling democracies all over the world, I can say with confidence that Zuckerberg has not lived up to his promises. 

Back in 2018, we all laughed at the memes of Zuckerberg looking like a bargain brand Data from Star Trek. Congress did their fair share of finger wagging while Zuckerberg twiddled his thumbs and looked at his feet. 

Yet very little was done about it. We all laughed, shook our heads, and moved on with our lives, trusting that Facebook would self-regulate, and there lies the real problem. In this New Gilded Age, we have abdicated more and more power to corporations, relieving them of any oversight or supervision. Putting our government in an increasingly advisory role, subservient to a private sector which only grows more emboldened every year. 

The average citizen is too jaded to do anything but make memes about it and the government is too corrupt and disinterested. However, I urge anyone who will listen to not continue to laugh about it. 

What we are seeing in the world has happened before. I don’t think I need to remind you how the Roaring Twenties ended, but just in case I’ll give you a hint. It was a little depressing.