October 29, 2021
Big tech self-regulation is not working. But measures to curb online harm must be carefully thought through
The Guardian view on regulating social media: necessary but risky | Editorial
Towards the end of another difficult week, Mark Zuckerberg took refuge in the tech utopian surroundings of his new growth vehicle – the “metaverse”. Surrounded by avatars of jovial colleagues, 3D street art and brightly coloured flying fish, Facebook’s CEO was the tour guide in a short promotional video released on Thursday, showcasing the company’s future plans for virtual reality experience. Coinciding with the announcement that Facebook is changing its corporate name to Meta, the saccharine video and the portentous rebranding were promptly panned across all platforms.
The hostile reception should not have come as a surprise. In the real world, Facebook has become the poster company for the negative, polarising impacts of Social Media on politics and society. Following the publication of the leaked Facebook papers – which reveal the extent to which the company has prioritised profit over mitigating the social harm it knew some online tools were causing – its reputation is at rock bottom. As parliamentary testimony by the former employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen made clear, Mr Zuckerberg and his small circle of trusted advisers have ignored ethical red flags waved by “integrity teams”. There has been a culpable reluctance to act on evidence that core engagement mechanisms were promoting extreme content and disinformation, and fomenting discord around the world. After hearing from Ms Haugen earlier this week, MPs then interrogated Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, highlighting research suggesting the company’s Instagram app damages the mental health of one in three teenage girls. Representatives of Twitter, Google and TikTok were questioned in the same session.
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