Surprising testimony given this week by a former Facebook employee should spur Ottawa to hesitate with the social media giant with tougher and more comprehensive rules, say technology experts and people fighting hate online.
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data researcher, told U.S. senators on Tuesday that Facebook is deliberately operating products that “harm children, provoke division and weaken our democracy.”
She called on the US government to take action, saying stronger oversight has become the only viable solution since the company has opted for profits over user safety.
The re-elected Liberal government has said it plans to crack down on social media hate speeches in future legislation – but Haugen’s testimony has some observers saying the government needs to completely reconsider how it can regulate companies like Facebook.
“The discussion needs to be so much bigger in terms of regulation,” said Ramona Pringle, a professor at Ryerson University who studies social media.
“If we do not see new legislation, the concern is that things will get very dark.”
Testimony ‘reinforces’ what some already knew
Haugen, who joined Facebook in 2019 and left in May, said the company has repeatedly failed to act on internal research showing that its products – particularly Instagram – can harm teens by exacerbating their body image problems.
Haugen also claimed that Facebook has willingly used hateful content to keep users engaged.
“This new information only reinforces research that has already been out there for a long time,” said Fareed Khan, founder of the advocacy group Canadians United Against Hate.
Khan has pressured the government to combat hate speech on social media through strict regulation. He said he would like the legislation to include fines and the possibility of criminal charges against tech leaders.
“I do not think they have an interest in doing this,” he said of the government’s response to date.
Haugen’s report on Facebook’s problems was true for former Liberal MP Catherine McKenna, who said companies like Twitter and Facebook have shown no interest in protecting victims of hateful online content.
Make Me & amp; many women in politics, on climate, in the media and beyond hold Facebook and Twitter responsible for a lot of hatred, vitriol and threats – online and offline – that we faced? We definitely do. They stood and did almost nothing.
And yes – we have to call it quits.
“They stood next to each other and did almost nothing,” McKenna wrote on Twitter.
McKenna was often the target of misogynistic attacks during her four years as Canada’s Environment and Climate Minister.
A Facebook Canada director said earlier this year that the company would welcome government regulation regarding the type of content that can be posted.
In an email to CBC News, a spokesman for Facebook Canada reiterated this message, while also rejecting Haugen’s claim that Facebook is deliberately endangering the safety of users.
“We have absolutely no commercial incentive, no moral incentive, no incentive for the entire company to do anything other than try to give the maximum number of people as positive an experience as possible on Facebook,” the statement said.
Ottawa will soon move forward with new legislation
The Liberal government has promised to introduce new legislation within its first 100 days to combat hate speech online by holding companies accountable for the content displayed on their platforms.
In an email to CBC News, the office of Canadian Minister of Culture Steven Guilbeault stated no plans to upgrade his approach to Facebook and other giants on social media after Haugen’s testimony and calls for further government action.
A spokesman for Guilbeault pointed to other planned social media-related legislation, including a plan to better promote and fund Canadian content and rules that would force companies to pay for Canadian news broadcasts when their content appears on social media platforms.
The department did not make Guilbeault available for an interview.
Pringle said Ottawa should consider other options that would more directly address concerns about hate speech, sowing division and promoting extremism online.
She agreed with Haugen’s comparison of Facebook with tobacco companies in the 20th century – companies that hid harmful information about the effects of their products.
These revelations eventually led to government actions, such as banning tobacco advertising and placing warning labels on tobacco products.
Pringle said Facebook seems unlikely to address these issues alone.
“There needs to be independent oversight. There needs to be government commitment at this stage,” she said.