October 12, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Accountability

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

Hello and welcome to this week’s Decoder, coming a day later than usual as yesterday we marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Between Maria Ressa winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and Frances Haugen’s testimony, this past week was crammed with social media news. We explore those stories and look at pushes for reform, the need for independent research into social media data, and whether social media companies may be edging just a smidge closer to addressing climate disinformation on their platforms. 

  • Nobel Prize: On Friday it was announced that journalist Maria Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov. Both work to enable free expression in authoritarian environments. Ressa has also been a staunch and prominent critic of the way Facebook operates in non-Western countries. In the Washington Post, Nina Jankowicz has an excellent column detailing Ressa’ work to call out Facebook’s role in enabling attacks on Filipino journalists and spreading President Rodrigo Duterte’s propaganda. Time has an interview in which Ressa talks about the significance of the award, as well as her continuing battles with Facebook.
  • Whistleblower Testimony: Scrutiny of Facebook’s failure to regulate its platform also came through whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on consumer protection on Instagram’s potential harm to teenagers last Tuesday. Haugen said that the company knows how to make its products safer but won’t, because of fear it would impact its profit margin Haugen will also be testifying in front of the UK Parliament on Monday, October 25th, at the European Parliament on November 8, and the Facebook Oversight Board. In the wake of the testimony, Decode Democracy has created a petition to Congress to enact meaningful social media reform. It can be signed here.
  • The Research: Following the testimony, there has been more analysis of the research into Instagram’s effect on teen girls. In the New York Times, Dr. Laurence Steinberg points out that the information Facebook has is fairly inconclusive, and notes that it, “should be used as a starting point for research, not as a conclusion.” Michael Petersen of Aarhus University notes that this lack of understanding is why we need meaningful research into social media. In a blow for transparency and research, however, CrowdTangle founder Brandon Silverman has announced he is leaving Facebook. In The Washington Post, director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center Nathaniel Persily outlines the methods by which outside scholars should be guaranteed access to Facebook’s data.
  • Reform: Haugen’s testimony has once again sparked questions of whether Facebook will finally be subjected to regulatory reform. In Time, Roger McNamee lays out a compelling case for why reform is necessary. The New York Times looks at some possibilities for reform, as well as the challenges. For CNN, Rachel Metz points out that transparency would go a long way towards improving the platform. The Washington Post muses on whether reform is finally on the way, and Vox breaks down the ways in which Haugen signalled for meaningful reform. In Decode Democracy, Ann Ravel outlines how Haugen’s testimony may finally spark desperately needed reform.
  • Capitol Riots: One coda to the whole whistleblower saga is that while being questioned about Haugen, Clegg also declined to say whether Facebook’s algorithms amplified pro-insurrection voices ahead of the January 6th Capitol Riots. New York Times reporter Ryan Mac points out the problems with that answer, and CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan agrees. Donald Trump, who was suspended from Facebook in the wake of the Capitol Riots, has filed a class action lawsuit to gain access to Facebook while his lawsuit proceeds, reports the Washington Examiner.
  • Environmental Policy: Capping off its interesting week, on Friday Facebook announced it would be curbing listings of Amazonian land on Facebook Marketplace. The announcement came a day after Google and YouTube announced they would prohibit ads that monetized climate denial, but only after the COP 26 conference on climate change.
  • Facebook Outage: The day before Haugen testified, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were down for around six hours. Using Chartbeat data, NiemanLab reports that traffic to news sites went up while the social network was down (although they can’t yet rule out whether this was due to people looking up the outage). Vice notes that even though Facebook was down, conspiracy theories about the outage still managed to spread.
  • Other Platforms: Following the sale of deadly counterfeit pills, Snapchat has announced a suite of new measures meant to address the problem. A group of representatives has also written to the CEOs of Apple and Google asking about the removal of a Russian voting app from their app stores — potentially under pressure from President Putin. In The Atlantic, Evelyn Douek writes that TikTok is also pressing harmful content on users, and that Congress needs to take the app more seriously.
  • Research: The Verge’s annual tech survey has found increased negative attitudes toward Big Tech have grown, with Facebook dropping the most. A new Nielson report has found that websites with higher Latino audiences were more likely to have content which was marked as biased or expressing conspiracies, NBC reports. A new preprint in the journal PsyArXiv has found that people are susceptible to disinformation even when they’re being paid to ferret out the truth.

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