Facebook and the prioritization of profit over people
Eighteen years ago, a young college student built a revolutionary platform that would define social media and everyday interactions from then on: Facebook. On Oct. 28, Facebook company CEO and co-founder Zuckerberg announced a new corporate name: Meta, which is meant to embody the company’s ambitions of evolving social connection to the metaverse — 3-dimensional realms for socializing, connection and entertainment.
This announcement, however, is a feeble stab at attempting to distract the public from the latest in a long line of scandals. And now, our generation — which has grown up with social media influences — must address such issues and contend with the negative impact Facebook, along with other platforms, has had on society.
In late September, whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen began to leak documents about Facebook’s harmful actions and flaws that ripple into society and everyday lives. Those documents state that Facebook has done little to tackle the spread of hate, misinformation and political polarization on the platform; any regulation at all has been temporary.
This deliberate inaction was Facebook’s choice to prioritize profit over people. Facebook’s algorithm, along with those of other social media platforms, decides what content one sees on their page based on the posts they have engaged with. There is one catch, however: Posts of misinformation, hate or polarization tend to evoke strong emotions from people, which elicits more engagement from Facebook’s users, who therefore use the social platform more. This loop of seeing and engaging with misinformation is endless and holds the ability to accumulate into a large catastrophe. An example is the infamous January 6th riot, which prosecutors and Haugen argue was planned and fueled by hateful and frightening Facebook posts about “restoring” the government “by bullet or ballot.”
The documents also present data that 13% of teenage girls feel more suicidal and another 17% feel more depressed when scrolling through Instagram, another social media app Meta owns. On a daily basis, teenage girls see content on the app that showcases fashion models, perfect bodies and makeup, vacations and luxuries. Similar to the patterns seen on Facebook, such content evokes more response from Instagram’s audience; the same toxic loop impacts not only older adults on Facebook, but younger teens and children on other social platforms. Yet even with such data, Meta had chosen little to fight the issue to make more profit.
This profit-over-people philosophy is nothing new; it has been rampaging through businesses and corporations for some time. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Tesla defied California’s spring lockdown order by calling in employees for work. When this action was greeted with government intervention, CEO and founder Elon Musk responded bitterly and called in workers a second time despite the many health concerns expressed by the employees themselves. As a result, more than 400 coronavirus cases were reported at a Tesla plant. And even when the company finally gave workers permission to stay home, some employees found termination letters sitting in their inboxes. Weight-loss companies fraudulently advertise miraculous results in order to make more profit, while lying to and sometimes even harming the public. Yet for centuries, people have been prioritizing profit over people; colonizers, slave-owners and employers who have subjected workers to unsafe conditions are all examples of people throughout history valuing money over human lives.
Along with climate change, social justice issues, polarization — this list goes on — our generation has been left with yet another issue to fix: reforming social media and large corporations that consistently decide to prioritize profit over the well-being of people. So what can we do to fight this dilemma? One solution is to enforce stricter government regulation over large corporations like Meta. A federal agency dedicated to oversight can keep corporations in check and ensure that they do not deliberately harm the public for profit.
Around 20 years ago, when social media and the Internet were rising superstars in the world, they were a place to escape from reality. Yet today, social media is ingrained into most people’s lives, as well as the negativity and dangers that come with it. These issues with profit over people also stem from the toxicity of social culture itself. Perhaps this recent scandal with Facebook will force us to ask the question: How and when will social media reform to benefit, rather than harm and exploit, the public?
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