Facebook’s head of security, Antigone Davis, sat before a Congressional committee today to answer questions about its platforms’ effects on teenagers, and the company’s plans to debut a new service for pre-teens.
How consequential this hearing will be is hard to quantify at this point. (I’ve already said I’m skeptical it will matter.) But whether the hearing has impact is beside the point. The fact that one even happened gives a shape, and a heft, to the controversy. The word for this is reification: it makes it real —or at least, real enough to make for good footage for the nightly local news broadcast and for the people who don’t read six-part Wall Street Journal series.
While I have little faith in Congress to make any sudden moves to rein in the largest social networking company, the hearing itself made me qualify my skepticism. Facebook has survived scandals about Russian election meddling, privacy erosion — you name it.
But its stumble on hiding research on how Instagram affects kids, and their obvious plans to bring more tweens onto the platform once the controversy dies down, brought to mind two other left-field scandals from the last decade that had far-reaching effects.
The first is Juul. The e-cigarette company had a lock on teenage nicotine use for a few years before it was humbled by an illness affecting its customers that only tangentially had to do with its own products.
The second is Chris Christie. Before he was a Trump surrogate, the ex-New Jersey Governor was immensely popular in his otherwise blue state, seemingly unscathed by his combative stance against public sector unions and his scotching of a popular plan to build a new tunnel to New York City. It was his administration’s use of traffic jams as a political pressure tactic — an infamous email that read “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — that contributed to his stunted political career.
What do these two have to do with Facebook? The first is obvious: harm to children is a cause for panic. The idea that Instagram could, as the Wall Street Journal reported, contribute to teenage suicide or girls’ body issues is enough to make parents press ‘delete’ on their kid’s phone.
But the other is convenience — the “traffic problems.” Instagram for pre-teens is simply a hassle for parents, no matter Facebook’s arguments that kids want it and use it anyway. Even if Facebook allows for greater surveillance, what good would that do? Parents — already overworked and strung out from a never-ending pandemic — already have a million ways to keep tabs on their kids browsing. You’re telling me that I now have to watch over another thing my kids are watching? And even if I see the content, how could I possibly know what she feels?
Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts landed the big critical line that’s likely to hit the news cycle. “Facebook is just like Big Tobacco,” he said during the hearing. “Instagram is that first childhood cigarette.” Facebook defenders might dismiss that as a rhetorical flourish. Maybe. But it’s also a comparison that can give legislators a roadmap to make a company heel.
LESS THAN ONE WEEK TO GO: We’re currently putting together our annual Impact 20 list, featuring start-ups around the world that do some good for society, as well as their own bottom lines. The nomination deadline has been extended to Wednesday, Oct. 6, so if there’s a company that comes to mind, let us know. Nominations can be submitted with this Google form, and questions are more than welcome at our email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin T. Dugan
Bezos blues. Twenty-one current and former employees of Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin signed an open letter alleging sexism in the workplace. "Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women. one senior executive in CEO Bob Smith's loyal inner circle was reported multiple times to Human Resources for sexual harassment."
Stop sign. Analysts are warning that the supply chain issues that have caused the worldwide auto chip shortage are likely to last years, rather than just be a short-term phenomenon. Investors expect to get a clearer picture on Friday after car manufacturers report earnings.
Union's due. Amazon settled with two employees who claimed they were fired for trying to get better working conditions and environmental protections. The decision is a rare win for labor against the e-commerce giant, which recently fizzled an organizing attempt in Alabama.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Ransomware death. It was inevitable this would happen. The Wall Street Journal has a story about the fatal consequences of ransomware, which have been deployed hospitals. In this case, one hospital had allegedly let an attack go on for more than a week, forcing doctors and nurses to have limited access to heart-monitor updates in a labor and delivery unit. According to the story, a baby had an umbilical cord wrapped around its neck, causing low oxygen levels — and died nine months later.
I doubt this is the first U.S. death that could be attributed to ransomware. It’s probably just the first we’ve heard of. I’ve written before about the need for increased transparency around this issue. This should be exhibit number one in every debate about it going forward.
From the story:
Amid the hack, fewer eyes were on the heart monitors—normally tracked on a large screen at the nurses’ station, in addition to inside the delivery room. Attending obstetrician Katelyn Parnell texted the nurse manager that she would have delivered the baby by caesarean section had she seen the monitor readout. “I need u to help me understand why I was not notified.” In another text, Dr. Parnell wrote: “This was preventable.”
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BEFORE YOU GO
Bada Bing. Have you noticed that just about everyone under 40 has been watching The Sopranos recently? Willy Staley at the New York Times Magazine has. I'm just going to admit that I'm profoundly jealous of this article. Not only does Staley actually have something new to say about what's probably the most dissected show in television history, but he's able to connect it to the hard-to-articulate kind of Millennial/Gen-Z ennui that's emanating from the way we live now.
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