Facebook has been getting lots of negative press because of a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) exposé. Most of the headlines focus on the tech giant's failure to release research showing that teenage girls who use Instagram self-report significant negative impacts on their wellbeing and mental health.
The other claims made by the WSJ have received only a fraction of the attention. They include allegations Facebook knows about but does very little about the platform being used by drug cartels and human traffickers. For example, in January 2021, an ex-policeman working for Facebook revealed in internal documents that a brutal Mexican drug cartel, known as Cartél Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) was using Facebook and Instagram to recruit, train and pay hitmen.
Nine days after the internal Facebook report was published, the WSJ alleges that a new Instagram page for the cartel posted a "video of a person with a gold pistol shooting a young man in the head while blood spurts from his neck. The next post is a photo of a beaten man tied to a chair; the one after that is a trash bag full of severed hands."
CJNG leaves a trail of destruction in Mexico. Last June, the gang attacked a drug rehabilitation centre and killed 28 residents. It has murdered more than 100 public servants. Facebook took five months to remove some of the most savagely violent posts but CJNG just keeps creating new Facebook and Instagram pages.
Imagine if a right-wing government was behaving the way Facebook has behaved about this cartel. There would be outrage at the level of incompetence, and allegations that the cartel had in some way corrupted government officials so that the response would be sluggish.
Then, there are the organisations that use Facebook to incite violence against minorities, like against Tigrayans in Ethiopia. Facebook claims that while it took a while to accomplish, it is now translating Facebook standards into the languages that Ethiopians use and has improved AI surveillance of the worst content. Given its record on the Mexican drug cartel, that is far from reassuring.
Facebook spends only a fraction of its time investigating concerns outside the US. According to the WSJ, Facebook spent more than 3.2 million hours in 2020 finding and sometimes taking down false and misleading information. Some 2.8 million of those hours, or approximately 319 years, were spent on the US, with a mere 13 per cent of the total of 3.2 million being spent outside the US.
Facebook spent approximately three times as long, or the rough equivalent of 656 years, ensuring “brand safety”, that is, ensuring advertisements do not appear beside content to which advertisers might object.
The WSJ also uncovered there is an elite to whom Facebook standards do not apply at all, or apply in a delayed fashion, including issues that are normally covered by a “one strike, close the account” approach, like posting sexual imagery of others without their consent.
These favoured ones comprise politicians, celebrities and anyone where a PR gaffe is likely to cost Facebook in terms of negative publicity.
Facebook has published extensive refutations of the WSJ stories and has fielded Nick Clegg, vice-president of global affairs, to bat for the defence.
Facebook said of the WSJ series, “These stories have contained deliberate mischaracterisations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees”.
Some of what Clegg says is correct. Ironically, one of the things he gets right is that the social science on the impact of social media on mental health is far from settled. Two impeccably fair researchers, Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, who believe social media is implicated in mental health issues, have acknowledged research tells us sometimes contradictory things about social media's impact.
You can check out their
on research dating from 2014 onwards, which concludes that yes, there is an association between social media use and bad mental health outcomes, but with interesting qualifications. For example, in some cases, light users seem to be in better shape than non-users.
Believe me, this is not a defence of social media. I have seen an explosion in anxiety and depression among young girls in particular since the advent of the smartphone. But is it because those prone to anxiety and depression are driven to obsessive interaction with social media, or the resultant lack of sleep, or the demands of work that leave parents time-starved and near burnout? We do not know.
What we do know is that a company that thrived during the pandemic and has made more than $100 billion in profit in the past five years, is hosting drug cartels, human traffickers and those inciting ethnic cleansing on its platforms and doing very little, very slowly about it.
Why should it be particularly troubled if teenage girls are collateral damage in this vast, profit-making enterprise? Facebook has spawned a monster.
The troubling thing is that it is not clear that either society or Facebook has any real will to hobble the monster in any meaningful way.