Facebook has become the latest company that everyone loves to hate, and internal documents stolen by an employee have become an opening to blame the social-media giant for America’s ills. The company has made mistakes, but it’s worth sorting the genuine issues from the opportunism of politicians looking to censor opponents.
Both were on display as Frances Haugen, the former employee who leaked the documents, testified on Capitol Hill. One of her legitimate concerns is Facebook’s negative influence on the mental health of teenagers. It’s no surprise to parents that teens are emotionally fragile and especially vulnerable to peer and celebrity influences.
Ms. Haugen’s documents show that Facebook understands its impact on teens but has done little about it. According to its internal research, 82% of teens experienced emotional issues in the last month, including poor body image, anxiety and depression. More than half who experience anxiety, family stress and loneliness said they use Instagram to distract from their feelings. One in five U.S. teens said Instagram made them feel worse while 42% said it made them feel better.
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“Teens not satisfied with their lives are more likely to say [Instagram] makes them feel worse than those who are satisfied,” a Facebook slide-deck notes, and “being in a low or vulnerable state of mind means teens are more vulnerable to the content they see online.” Many teens don’t have close friends or mentors they feel they can turn to for support.
This is a problem that can’t be solved by government, though some politicians want to try. They’ve proposed eliminating Section 230 liability protection for algorithms or requiring Facebook to submit its algorithms to regulators for review. Just what we need — a Bureau of Algorithms.
A better idea is to give users more control over their news feeds and parents more control over what their kids are exposed to online. Tech companies overall have resisted giving parents more control over what their children see online, and social-media apps are especially unhelpful. Here’s where Congressional pressure could do some good.
Too bad the main concern of many politicians is prodding Facebook to censor “misinformation.” Ms. Haugen seems to agree, and it’s notable that her appearance seems to have been midwifed by Bill Burton, a prominent Democratic communications executive. Facebook is “facing a Big Tobacco moment, a moment of reckoning,” said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Democrats have seen that bludgeoning CEO Mark Zuckerberg and threatening the company with regulation has been working. Mr. Zuckerberg resisted censorship for some time, but in recent years Facebook has begun to add opinionated “fact-checks” or has censored stories that disagree with progressive orthodoxy on climate, COVID or other issues. Our op-eds have been targeted more than once.
Facebook makes money by targeting ads, so it naturally has an incentive to feed users content that keeps them hooked. But the company has also become a political scapegoat for the deeper-seated cultural problems that its platform can amplify. Congress ought to be examining ways to empower social-media users and parents, rather than bullying Facebook to exercise more control over user speech.