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3 questions for Facebook ahead of its Senate hearing

September 28, 2021, 5:31 PM UTC

Facebook security chief Antigone Davis will testify before a Senate subcommittee on Thursday about how and whether her company’s digital products harm children. 

The hearing comes after the Wall Street Journal published a damning series on Facebook, particularly its internal research about how Instagram can increase a range of harmful psychological issues for kids, including making a third of teenage girls feel worse about their bodies. Ahead of the hearing, Facebook said it would pause its planned release of a version of Instagram for 10- to 12-year olds—a concession that accompanied Facebook explaining that the would-be service is perfectly fine. 

I’m skeptical this hearing will change anything. In the past, legislators have botched their chances to get to the heart of what Facebook does. There is hope this time is different, though. The Journal reported that a whistleblower has handed over documents to lawmakers, removing some of the asymmetrical information advantage that Facebook has usually enjoyed during its rare time in the barrel. So, I have three questions that I think could get to the heart of this particular hearing.

Will you release The Facebook Files?

Journalist Casey Newton has an article co-published with The Verge arguing that the best thing for Facebook to do is just release the internal reports that the Journal series is based on. Facebook has already committed to publishing some slide decks, but that’s far from the full picture. Given that there’s serious data that Instagram may be responsible for a rise in self-harm among teenage girls, parents should have more information about how the service can be used to reduce that risk, rather than trusting the company to quietly engineer around the issue. 

I’ll take this further: Facebook may be facing a new regulatory reality, and it’s in the public interest to know how to constrain its service’s worst effects by disseminating its data among the people who’d know how to do it. “Public” in this second context means the expert public, the kind of people who tend to offer opinions in comment letters to the government before a new rule change.

Explain the engine behind suggestions

Open Instagram and tap the magnifying glass icon to see who Facebook thinks you really are. (For me, it’s baby videos and tattoo accounts). It also has a bead on the bored, perhaps the people most open to influence. Those are the people who scroll far enough down on Instagram to see suggested accounts. These suggestions have long been a giant factor in Facebook’s growth, a way to keep people on the platform and, over time, exposed to more ads. 

Since Facebook acknowledges that kids sign up for Instagram before they turn 13, it’s worth knowing more about how it keeps them on the service. YouTube’s recommendation engine is widely known to serve up increasingly extreme content. Since body issues are front and center in the teenage mental health debate, more information should be made public about how it treats “fitspo,” or fitness inspiration, and other similar of accounts to teen users. 

Selective moderation versus mental health

Mark Zuckerberg is an unabashed fan of Augustus, the Roman emperor who referred to himself as primus inter pares, or first among equals. This attitude has also apparently steeped into the content moderating philosophy at Facebook, giving its most influential users a special kind of concierge moderation  different from the kind the rest of us get — that allows toxic or harmful posts to stay up longer, such as alleged revenge porn.

Facebook allows its popular users more leeway because they’re popular and ultimately make it more money. But what are the effects of letting celebrities spread pictures of naked women? How much of the content most likely to be damaging to children comes from these same accounts? I’d expect Facebook to say that most of the content coming from these accounts is benign — but that’s just a non-answer. Most content is benign by definition. It’s the extreme cases that get the most spread. What’s most concerning is when so many users are allowed to post so many extreme pictures, that it changes the definition of benign itself.

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

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Boom boom. Five Texas police officers are suing Tesla after one of its cars, apparently running on its "Autopilot" feature, rammed into two cop cars at 70 mph. Elon Musk's company has been under scrutiny, including from lawmakers, over whether it's overpromising what its self-driving technology can deliver by calling it "Autopilot."

Union dues. Amazon is on the defensive after allegedly firing two of its Washington employees for trying to organize a union drive. The complaint, filed by the National Labor Relations Board, alleges that the two were fired for trying to get better COVID-19 protections, and that an Amazon executive made racist remarks. Amazon says it fired the employees for violating internal policies. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Office space. Cal Newport has an article in the New Yorker questioning whether the office is really all that great of an idea, and how to balance that with remote work. His piece channels Chris Herd, a Scottish entrepreneur, who's trying out a so-called "remote-first strategy," where employees gather about once a month. This allows his company to search for a bigger pool of talent by lessening the geographic burden, and he predicts that this will benefit small firms the most. 

Newport is really smart. His books Digital Minimalism and Deep Work fundamentally changed how I saw office life and tech culture. But this strikes me as precisely backward. Large companies, especially tech companies, are in the best position to take advantage of this. They have the resources to cover this kind of travel, plus offer the kind of competitive salaries, benefits, and complex projects that will attract global talent. That seems like it will make it harder for small companies to poach, leading the biggest to get bigger. It all seems like the first step of a new kind of globalization. 

From the story

In Herd’s vision, which he calls a remote-first strategy, relevant teams gather less frequently—he suggests once a month as a good interval—in varying locations that suit the work that’s being done. ... The bigger advantage of Herd’s approach, however, is that it significantly increases the size of the pool of potential hires. “A remote-first company can access the best talent in the world,” he said. “An office-first company can only access those who live within a certain radius of their building.” Again and again in our conversation, Herd emphasized the power of this factor. “In a knowledge-based economy, your value is the talent you employ. If other companies employ better talent, they are better than you.”

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BEFORE YOU GO

Everything is connected. Tech stocks are having a rough one. The reason has to do with the cost of borrowing, since the Federal Reserve has signaled that it will let rates rise and cut back on its $120 billion in debt purchases. Since tech tends to be more speculative and debt-fueled than many other industries, this is raising the bar for entry, or growth. 

What makes this different than the same conversations back in 2019 is how deeply tech has blanketed the world during the pandemic. Do borrowing costs matter that much now that all these giants are so much bigger? 

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