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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen discusses corporate reform at the YLS event

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The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was accompanied by activists and professors to discuss the regulation of Facebook.

Isabel Maney, 11:22 PM, October 10, 2021

Contributing Reporter

Sara Tabin, contributing photographer

On Thursday evening, Yale Law School’s information society project welcomed Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as part of a panel of activists and academics discussing reform of social media platforms.

Haugen testified to the U.S. Congress on Oct. 5, claiming Facebook was aware of the harm it was causing – such as negative effects on teenage mental health – but didn’t respond with significant changes. Thursday’s event was divided into two sections. The first part involved a group of technology and social media activists including Haugen, Center for Human Technology President and Co-Founder Tristan Harris, Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff, and Assistant Director of Reset Tech Meetali Jain. The event then passed into a panel of academic experts that discussed possible legal regulations for Facebook. Those panelists included Law Professor Jack Balkin and UC Irvine Professor David Kaye.

“I believe we still have time to have social media that bring out the best in humanity, but that won’t happen if we don’t lead Facebook in that direction,” said Haugen at the start of the event.

From their own experiences in various fields, the activists drew the behavioral, social, governmental and technological changes needed to reform Facebook. The issue of virality – a measure of how quickly and to how many people a picture is distributed – was of particular interest to the activists. Harris suggested that if a picture made it harder to go viral, for example, by limiting the number of pictures shared, it would make Facebook more secure in a short time.

Limiting virality would still allow social movements like Black Lives Matter to organize through Facebook, Haugen said. She cited the example of Pantsuit Nation, a feminist activist group that effectively organized a large social movement through Facebok, although the organization was not originally optimized for growth as their original Facebook group was private and by invitation only.

Panellists agreed that legislative action was needed to properly regulate Facebook.

“These are conversations that need to be held between citizens and lawmakers as we shape a digital and democratic century,” said Zuboff. “As much as we can push Facebook to optimize something [its platform], that is not the solution. The solution is that the digital must live in the house of democracy. “

Panellists suggested legislative measures to address Facebook’s current problems, particularly as violations of the law were identified as key factors in Facebook’s existing problems. Self-regulation is not an effective solution as the underlying business models need to be changed in order to regulate Facebook effectively, Balkin said.

The panelists suggested reforming the section 230 of the Communication Standards Actwhich stipulates that social media companies are not liable for third-party content on their platforms. They also suggested closing Facebook and requiring Facebook to make disclosures.

Although Facebook’s impact on democracy was paramount to panellists, Balkin reminded the audience that there are other concerns about social media regulation, such as physical safety, Links to Ethnic Violence and Genocide, Privacy, consumer protection and manipulation.

“Although we have emphasized democracy as the most important thing we are concerned about, there are more things at stake and they have to do with the various reforms we could propose,” said Balkin. “And that’s because most people just don’t talk politics online. They talk about a lot of things, but a lot of it is not politics. “

Facebook’s global impact was a concern for both academic and activist panelists. Ninety percent of Facebook users are outside of the United States, and although something has changed in recent years, many countries still don’t have laws regulating Facebook, according to Kaye. Even in countries with authoritarian governments, these laws are difficult to implement, said Jain.

“I thought Facebook was problematic in the United States; I had seen the effects of that, ”said Haugen. “The version that we see in the United States is the cleanest, cleanest version of Facebook … I had no idea how many people die from ethnic violence, fueled by decisions that Facebook is making on the platform, or the Facebook’s decisions about investing too little in security systems for people who, say, don’t speak English. “

Both bodies considered a reform of Facebook to be achievable. After studying various forms of social media for the past 43 years, Zuboff has seen a shift in attitudes about regulating Facebook lately, especially after the legislative action which took place in the European Union.

“Events like this not only help to refine ideas and discuss ideas, but of course also to disseminate ideas and create an environment in which these ideas can be implemented,” said Nikolas Guggenberger, one of the moderators of the panel.

Around 2,500 people registered for the Zoom webinar, which was also streamed live and recorded for other people.

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