'Twitchy, toxic and divisive': Facebook's Instagram problem implodes

“Twitchy”, “toxic”, “divisive”.

Facebook’s Instagram problem is imploding. Facebook bought out the photo sharing app for $1 billion in 2012 and on Tuesday, a whistleblower blew the covers off how Facebook engineers the toxic connections driving teens on Instagram to the brink. The damning revelations came via more than 200 minutes of live testimony in US Congress Tuesday.

Recently leaked internal Facebook documents show that 13 per cent of British users and 6 per cent of American users trace their desire to kill themselves to Instagram.

After first confronting Facebook`s head of global safety, US lawmakers turned to whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee at the social networking giant.

Facebook, according to Haugen, is laser focused on getting younger users hooked on Instagram early on so they don’t end up going to TikTok or Snapchat.

“They understand the value of younger users for the long term success of Facebook,” she said Tuesday.

Haugen, testifying to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, laid out the broad brushstrokes of new regulations needed to rein in Facebook and other platforms that feed off customer data to fire their growth engines.

The most charged moments came when Haugen spoke about the harms to teens, mostly girls, on Instagram.

Haugen said Facebook knows that kids in their most vulnerable moments are harmed by its systems. She said Facebook has figured out that around the age of 14, right before high school, is when kids are most likely to get sucked into Instagram’s emotional roller coaster.

Here are some key excerpts from Haugen`s testimony Tuesday, especially as it relates to young people on the platform:

Problematic use: “I think any research regarding what Facebook does on problematic use, the addictiveness of the product – is of vital importance, and anything around what Facebook knows about parents’ lack of knowledge about the platform. Facebook articulates the idea that parents today are not aware of dangers via Instagram. Because they themselves do not live through these experiences, they can’t coach their kids on basic safety.”

Instagram is about bodies: “Facebook’s own research says Instagram is actually distinctly worse than say TikTok or Snapchat or Reddit. TikTok is about doing fun things with your friends. Snapchat is about faces and augmented reality. Reddit is vaguely about ideas, but Instagram is about bodies, and about comparing lifestyles. And so I think there are real questions where Instagram would have to come in and think hard about their product, or what is their product about.”

Anorexia content: “Facebook knows that their engagement based ranking, the way they pick the content in Instagram for young users – for all users – amplifies preferences, and they have done something called a proactive approach. Active, incident response where they take things that they’ve heard for example like can you be led by the algorithms to anorexia content, and they have literally recreated that experiment themselves and confirmed. Yes, this, this happens to people. So Facebook knows they are leading young users to anorexia content.”

Profits before people: “I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed.”

Misleading, divisive, extreme: “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public from the US government and from governments around the world. The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about its own research, the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.”

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