The Media Today

What would an effective social-media regulator look like?

October 13, 2021
Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Last week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee about the company’s propensity for disregarding its own research into the harms done by its content algorithms, particularly among young girls who use Instagram, its photo-sharing site. During her testimony, Haugen recommended regulatory oversight that would impose standards of behavior on the social network in an attempt to minimize their various harms—something a number of other Facebook critics have also proposed over the past several years. “Right now, the only people in the world who are trained to … understand what’s happening inside of Facebook, are people who grew up inside of Facebook or Pinterest or another social-media company,” Haugen told the Senate subcommittee. She said Facebook’s profit motive was so strong that the company would not change unless it was subjected to pressure from a government regulator. “Until incentives change at Facebook, we should not expect Facebook to change,” she said. “We need action from Congress.”

The idea has plenty of critics, but there’s also one somewhat surprising supporter: Facebook itself. In a March 2019 op-ed in the Washington Post, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, argued that government regulation is necessary and that he welcomes it. “Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks,” he wrote. “But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone. I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators.” Among other things, Zuckerberg said he agreed with the need for a personal-data protection law similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. “I believe it would be good for the Internet if more countries adopted regulation such as GDPR as a common framework,” he wrote.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, reiterated this to the press following Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview. The algorithms the company uses “should be held to account, if necessary by regulation, so that people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens,” Clegg said on CNN. He also said the company is open to amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms from liability for what their users post. “We’re not saying this is a substitution of our own responsibilities,” Clegg told NBC, “but there are a whole bunch of things that only regulators and lawmakers can do. I don’t think anyone wants a private company to adjudicate on these difficult trade-offs between free expression on one hand and moderating or removing content on the other. Only lawmakers can create a digital regulator.”

The fact that Facebook itself wants regulatory oversight is a good reason to oppose it, some critics argue. “We’ve reached the stage in the battle over the power of Big Tech when even some of the most monopolistic of Silicon Valley companies are begging to be regulated,” Jacob Silverman wrote in The New Republic in May. “We shouldn’t listen to them. Whatever sure-to-be-insufficient efforts are made to repair a broken internet can’t involve tech giants as anything but subjects to be criticized, broken up, and, if necessary, prosecuted.” Offers to partner in creating regulations, he added, “should be treated with the withering skepticism they deserve.” Even Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who supports the idea of a new digital regulatory agency, wrote that “a tried-and-true lobbying strategy is to loudly proclaim support for lofty principles while quietly working to hollow out the implementation of such principles.”

Matt Stoller, a former fellow at the Open Markets Institute and a former policy advisor to the Senate budget committee, wrote in his subscription Substack newsletter that “a digital regulator that legitimizes Facebook’s power would be the worst possible outcome” of Haugen’s whistleblowing. “The concentration of power in the hands of a small group is the fundamental political and economic problem with Facebook,” he wrote. “We have to radically decentralize this power. But a regulatory overlay in some ways would worsen the problem.” The bottom line, Stoller argued, is that “we have to eliminate Facebook’s toxic business model, not regulate it, because regulating something serves to legitimize it.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, also argues that we would be better to focus on reducing Facebook’s ability to surveil and target us rather than relying on antitrust and other mechanisms to solve our problems.

Here’s more on Facebook and regulation:

  • Whistleblower(s): Frances Haugen isn’t the first former employee to point the finger at wrongdoing by Facebook, as Guardian reporter Julia Carrie Wong noted following Haugen’s testimony. Sophie Zhang, who also recently agreed to testify before Congress about her allegations, “went public in April 2021 with extensive documentation revealing how Facebook failed to address political manipulation in dozens of countries,” Wong noted in a Twitter thread. “I’m glad people are paying attention to her now but it’s weird to retcon her into a secondary player in Haugen’s narrative.” Among other things, Wong wrote, Zhang “showed how Facebook let the authoritarian leader of Honduras break its rules and manipulate its platform for 11 months before bothering to do anything about it.”
  • Regulator(s): In an interview on CJR’s Galley discussion platform on Tuesday, Steven Waldman, the president and co-founder of Report For America, said that there are a number of different aspects to the question of social-media regulation, each of which requires a different kind of regulator. “There are problems for democracy (polarization, hate speech, misinformation), problems for the economy (the ways that monopolies can squelch innovation and other businesses through anti competitive behavior) and problems for mental health, especially of young people,” he said. “Each of these has a different solution.” Using anti-trust regulation to break up Facebook, he said, “might solve some of those problems (economic) but not others (mental health).” (CJR will be discussing this issue with other experts, including Harold Feld from Public Knowledge, over the rest of this week.)
  • The SEC: The Securities and Exchange Commission has been communicating with attorneys for Frances Haugen, according to John Napier Tye, one of her lawyers. The commission hasn’t confirmed whether it is probing the allegations; still, Marc Fagel, a former director of the SEC’s San Francisco office, told the Wall Street Journal they are almost certain to be doing so. “Given how much play this has gotten, especially with the revelation that the whistleblower went to the SEC, there is no way they are not looking at this,” Fagel told the Journal. He said the regulator would likely focus on whether the company told investors one story about the possible business risks while concealing worse news that they shared internally.
  • Safe harbor: The Economic Times reports that India is considering a “rethink” of the safe harbour framework enjoyed by social-media platforms in the country, in the wake of the Journal‘s series on Facebook and the testimony of Haugen before the Senate. The country’s regulator is “watching the situation evolve globally and thinks the blanket exemption given to social media companies has to go,” senior government officials told the news outlet. “The platforms have to be accountable for the content; they can’t shield behind the safe harbour, they have to be much more proactive in identifying and removing harmful and hateful content,” an official told the Economic Times.
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Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times is testing an app that brings together all of the company’s podcasts and audio features, according to a report from Bloomberg. Starting Tuesday, the paper will begin recruiting users to test a beta version of the app, called New York Times Audio (although the company said its podcasts will still be available on platforms from Apple and Spotify). “The app features curated Times podcasts, audio versions of articles and the archive of ‘This American Life,’ which the newspaper publisher licenses,” Bloomberg said. “It also has audio stories from other publications, such as New York magazine, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, that are available on Audm. The Times acquired Audm last year.”
  • The Intercept has published Facebook’s “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy, an internal list of thousands of people and groups that the social network bans users from mentioning. The site says the list “has become an unaccountable system that disproportionately punishes certain communities,” so it has published “a reproduction of the material in its entirety, with only minor redactions and edits to improve clarity. It is also publishing an associated policy document, created to help moderators decide what posts to delete and what users to punish.”
  • Ozy Media, which briefly appeared to shut down following reports that a senior staff member impersonated a YouTube executive on a funding call with Goldman Sachs, says it is looking for new writers, according to a version of the company’s newsletter that was posted on Twitter yesterday by New York Times media columnist Ben Smith. “We are immediately hiring editors and writers,” the newsletter post said. “All positions are remote, and come with a competitive salary and benefits package.” The company said it is looking for “energetic, committed, hard-working people to build a thriving team and culture that we can all be proud of.”
  • Victoria Baranetsky and Shawn Musgrave of the Center for Investigative Reporting write for CJR about Synopsys, a Silicon Valley-based technology company and federal contractor that claims its diversity data is a trade secret, and why this is “a problem for journalism and democracy.” Both of the authors have been involved in an ongoing case brought against Synopsys by the Center for Investigative Reporting, in which the center’s Reveal newsroom “argues that Synopsys’ alleged exception from FOIA’s general rule of disclosure is illegal and a serious concern that will hinder the collection of public records by journalists.”
  • The Intercept had nearly 70,000 paid members in the US and Brazil last year, the company told Axios. The outlet says it’s expecting that figure to drop this year to about 65,000 members. Betsy Reed, the site’s editor in chief, said it is seeing “less intense engagement in the post-Trump era,” but that memberships are still strong, and that the Intercept‘s readership hasn’t been impacted dramatically by the departure of co-founder Glenn Greenwald. Memberships account for less than a quarter of the site’s funding, with philanthropic donations making up most of the rest, Axios reports.
  • The Reuters Institute for Journalism, based at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, has launched the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, an attempt to “help journalists cover the climate crisis better,” funded by a grant from the European Climate Foundation. It will do so by offering online courses for practicing journalists, leadership programs for editors and newsroom managers, fellowships for mid-career journalists, and original academic research, the Reuters Institute said. The project will beled by Meera Selva, the Reuters Institute’s deputy director, and Wolfgang Blau, a visiting fellow and member of the institute’s advisory board.
  • Twitter has launched a new creator program as part of Spaces, the audio-based chatroom feature it released earlier this year in an attempt to compete with Clubhouse, a similar standalone service. Twitter said the Spark program is a three-month project that aims to “discover and reward great Spaces on Twitter with financial, technical, and marketing support.” According to TechCrunch, the company says it’s open to accepting established Spaces shows for the program, as well as untested experiments, and is inviting creators interested in audio funding to apply.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.