A Whistleblower Faces Down Facebook

Whistleblower Frances Haugen’s October 5, 2021 testimony before Congress regarding her former employer Facebook’s practices was simultaneously riveting and deeply unsettling. Her overarching point was that Facebook consistently prioritizes profits over users’ safety, refusing to make product reforms that would protect users from the company’s products’ biggest harms.

Facebook has, of course, faced several scandals over the years, including those related to the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, the Myanmar genocide, and Russian election interference. Haugen drew parallels between Facebook’s actions and those of companies selling tobacco and opioids. To illustrate her point, she highlighted, among many other practices, Facebook’s:

  • Use of “engagement-based ranking” that prioritizes extreme sentiments and dangerous content and therefore has impacts such as causing teen girls to be exposed to more anorexia content, fuels political divisions within families, and contributes to ethnic violence in Ethiopia.
  • Serving as a platform that helped Stop the Steal groups organize the January 6 insurrection
  • Decision to disband its civic integrity team after the 2020 election and before the January 6 attack on the Capitol
  • Failure to stop the spread of misleading vaccine information
  • Burying its own internal research regarding the impact of Instagram on teen girls’ mental health
  • Failure to protect the most vulnerable populations (e.g., widows and people who’ve moved to new cities) from misinformation that sucked them down rabbit holes
  • Knowingly allowing authoritarian or terrorist-based leaders to use its platform to surveil enemies
  • Allowing high-profile users to skirt its content rules.

We are pretty sure that the Big Cheeses at Facebook, including Mark Zuckerberg himself, are generally speaking good people and certainly think of themselves as such. If we assume there is any substantial core of truth to Ms. Haugen’s testimony, then we face one of the most common questions in behavioral ethics research—why do good people do bad things? Most people thought well of Enron before its collapse in scandal. People today are probably more dubious of Facebook, but both firms likely fell prey to the same sorts of psychological flaws in moral decision-making.

This is speculative, of course, but we think that overconfidence may have had something to do with it. After all, Facebook was the coolest kid on the block for such a long time. It has been widely admired, its products broadly enjoyed, and its commercial success is nearly unrivaled. It has 2.9 billion monthly users and enjoyed $54 billion in advertising revenue in just the first half of 2021. Zuckerberg’s overconfidence has been noted by his former close mentor, Roger McNamee, among others. The overconfidence that people, especially successful people, tend to have regarding their various abilities (driving, speaking, managing, etc.) often spill over into matters of morals. Impossibly high percentages of people believe they are more moral than most of their colleagues and competitors and over 90% of us are satisfied with our moral character. The head honchos at Facebook may be overconfident regarding their morals and likely have instituted policies and practices without carefully thinking through their moral implications.

The self-serving bias is, of course, the tendency that people have to gather, process, and even remember information in ways that serve their own perceived self-interest. If you happened to own a big chunk of Facebook shares, as most of the company’s “deciders” no doubt do, decisions that help the firm’s profitability and stock price performance might well seem to be the right thing to do even though they’re just the right thing for them.

Framing is an important concept because the decisions that people make have everything to do with what is in their frame of reference at the time they make the decision. If profitability dominates your frame of reference, ethical issues may, through a process called ethical fading, nearly disappear from view. Ms. Haugen’s observation that Facebook consistently prioritizes profits above users’ safety is evidence that Facebook executives may have a framing problem. Haugen also noted Facebook’s “deep focus on scale,” which leads it to rely on artificial intelligence rather than more effective human employees in judging which offensive content should be blocked—another framing problem.

Haugen pronounced that it was time for Facebook to declare “moral bankruptcy.” One suspects that Ms. Haugen’s testimony will spark continued and intense scrutiny of Facebook that will exceed anything the company has seen before. If the leaders of Facebook wish to solve the problems and mitigate the damage that have prompted that scrutiny, they should engage in a little self-examination using behavioral ethics principles as a guide.

 

Resources

Robin Givhan, “The Whistleblower Came to Advocate for Humans over Algorithms,” Washington Post, Oct. 5, 2021.

Kevin Granville, “Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens,” New York Times, Mar. 19, 2018.

Mike Isaac & Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone,” New York Times, Oct. 30, 2017.

Adrienne LaFrance, “The Largest Autocracy on Earth,” The Atlantic, Sept. 27, 2021.

Ulrike Malmendier & Geoffrey Tate, “Behavioral CEOs: The Role of Managerial Overconfidence,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 29(4): 37 (2015).

Roger McNamee, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (2019).

Mariella Moon, “Mark Zuckerberg Denies Facebook Puts Profit Over Users’ Safety,” endgadget, Oct. 6, 2021, at https://www.engadget.com/mark-zuckerberg-denies-facebook-profit-over-safety-033717690.html.

Alexandra Stevenson, “Facebook Admits It Was Used to Incite Violence in Myanmar,” New York Times, Nov. 6, 2018.

 

Videos

Behavioral Ethics:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/behavioral-ethics

Ethical Fading: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-fading

Framing: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing

Overconfidence Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/overconfidence-bias

Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias

 

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