Facebook, whistleblower Frances Haugen says of her former employer, is this generation’s Big Tobacco, “hooking kids” on its products and lying about its business practices. Facebook-owned Instagram, she says, is especially insidious, addicting 14-year-olds with “little hits of dopamine” when friends like their posts.
“It’s just like cigarettes,” Haugen said last week in testimony before a Senate Commerce subcommittee. “Teenagers don’t have good self-regulation. They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram, and yet I can’t stop.’”
These parallels are alluring — half a dozen senators embraced Haugen’s analogy — and worrisome. They’re also misleading. Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram pose serious societal and political challenges, but the tobacco industry offers an imperfect and potentially distracting metaphor.
Among the differences: Social media has redeeming qualities that cigarettes do not. Society doesn’t have an interest in keeping children away from these technologies entirely as it does with cigarettes; rather, there is a public interest in preventing predatory targeting of minors and a countervailing interest in protecting free expression and encouraging innovation.
“Unlike tobacco, Facebook actually adds tremendous value,” said Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety. “People use it to grow their small businesses. They use it to create groups to fight things like domestic violence. ... They use it for creating community for their soccer teams.”
Haugen sticks by the metaphor. “Only about 10 percent of people who smoke ever get lung cancer,” Haugen said, responding to Davis’s argument that eight in 10 young Facebook users have a neutral or positive experience. “The idea that 20 percent of your users could be facing serious mental health issues . . . is shocking.”
In Haugen’s telling, Facebook’s efforts to amp up appeals to young people intensified as engagement rates slipped. That response serves not only as a critique of Facebook, as she intended, but also as a good reminder that a social network is not an essential public utility, as it has become fashionable to argue. Many were inconvenienced during Monday’s outages, but life went on in ways it would not if people lost electricity or water. Platforms’ popularity comes and goes. Remember Myspace?
The reality is that teenagers are going to use social media whether Facebook is tamed or not. The genie is out of the bottle. If minors don’t use Instagram, they’ll use Snapchat, Chinese-owned TikTok or something we’ve never heard of. Parents need to take more personal responsibility for monitoring their kids’ social media usage, instead of relying on the nanny state to do their jobs for them.
On the other side of the equation, policing speech on Facebook in the United States would give license to autocratic regimes elsewhere to impose more onerous restrictions of their own. While the platform has been used in nefarious ways, from Myanmar and Ethiopia to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Facebook has also helped activists organize and galvanize the opposition to corrupt regimes, most recently in Cuba.
Haugen, a product manager until she resigned in the spring, argued that Facebook is even less transparent than tobacco companies in their heyday. For instance, outside scientists could independently invalidate claims about the safety of filtered cigarettes. By contrast, Facebook’s secret algorithms and refusal to fully cooperate with academic researchers protects the company from independent review. Haugen called for Congress to make them open up their black box.
“This inability to see into Facebook’s actual systems,” she said, “is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway.”
With this analogy, Haugen is on to something. Facebook should give consumers more control over their news feeds, parents more influence over what their kids see, and all users more ability to decide how their data is collected and monetized. Indeed, chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t need to wait until Congress compels him.
The fact that Facebook is spending untold millions on an ad campaign begging for new regulations in the United States should be a red flag for critics of the company who are demanding the same thing. Modernizing Internet regulation is important and necessary, but it needs to be done with care. With a nearly $1 trillion market cap, and about $30 billion in annual net income in 2020, the tech giant can afford compliance costs imposed by the government — costs that could create barriers to entry for start-ups who want to offer a better service.
Ultimately, government cannot change human nature or make adolescents less cruel to their classmates. But Congress can change Facebook’s incentives by requiring transparency and protecting privacy. What brought Big Tobacco to heel won’t have the same effect on social media.