October 25, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘The Facebook Whistle-Blower Testifies’

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Featured Podcast: “The Daily” episode “The Facebook Whistle-Blower Testifies” hosted by Astead W. Herndon with special guest Sheera Frenkel

The recent congressional testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, reveals the ways that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, negatively affects teenagers’ mental health and how hate speech has spread on the company’s platforms. The hearing could be a turning point for the social media giant.

In this lesson, you will learn about Ms. Haugen’s testimony and about some of Facebook’s most problematic practices. Then we invite you to discuss with your classmates how the company should be held accountable and what change should look like.

Part I. Temperature check

Read the statements below related to the way people use Facebook and Instagram. Then, rank each one on a scale of 1 (never) to 10 (always).

  • I see harmful content related to disordered eating, suicide or violence on social media.

  • I see inflammatory content shared by family and friends before I see reputable news sources.

  • I pause to read an article, or do additional research, before sharing something to my social media accounts.

  • Instagram and Facebook have a negative impact on my mental health.

Pause to reflect: What do your responses say about the way these social media apps work?

Part II. Watch a video

Watch a two-minute excerpt from the congressional testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, below. Then answer the following questions:

  • What kind of expertise does Ms. Haugen have to talk about the inner workings of Facebook?

  • What is the main idea of her testimony?

  • The New York Times calls Ms. Haugen a “whistle-blower,” or an informant who exposes wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it. What evidence from her testimony shows that she is a whistle-blower?

Listen to the first 28 minutes of the episode below. Then answer the questions that follow:

1. What was unique about Tuesday’s congressional hearing, compared with previous ones on Facebook and other large tech companies?

2. How does Ms. Haugen describe Facebook’s relationship with profit and its users?

3. Ms. Haugen uses two terms, “engagement-based ranking” and “amplification of interest,” to explain why harmful content — such as that on disordered eating, suicide or violence — is pushed to young people. In your own words, describe what these two terms mean and how they relate to the spread of negative content. Have you, or have any of your friends, experienced this?

4. What are “meaningful social interactions,” or M.S.I., in the world of Facebook? How has this practice become effective in spreading misinformation and keeping people attached to Facebook? Have you noticed M.S.I. affecting what you see on Facebook or Instagram?

5. Ms. Haugen talked about two things that would make using Facebook and Instagram less harmful: creating more friction and re-implementing a chronological newsfeed. Explain the purpose of each of these. Do you agree with her recommendations? Why or why not?

6. What does Sheera Frenkel, a technology reporter for The Times, say are the ways that Facebook can be held accountable? How do people within Facebook feel about these various methods of accountability?

7. Why don’t Ms. Haugen and other Facebook insiders want Facebook to be broken up or totally taken down? Do you agree with this perspective? Or would you rather see Facebook taken offline entirely? Why?

In your journal, respond to the following questions: What is your reaction to Frances Haugen’s testimony? What surprised you in what she revealed about the inner workings of Facebook? What frustrated or angered you? What, if anything, gives you hope about the future of the company or social media in general?

Now, discuss the following questions with your classmates:

  • What do you think should happen next to Facebook? What should accountability look like?

  • Ms. Haugen suggests that Facebook should “declare moral bankruptcy.” What do you think this would look like and what might the outcomes or consequences be?

  • What role do you think the government should play in investigating or regulating social media?

  • The podcast references Renée DiResta, an academic and misinformation expert at Stanford University, who differentiates between “freedom of speech” and “freedom of reach.” Do you think it is possible for the government to control the spread of misinformation without infringing on the right to free speech? Why or why not?

Additional Teaching and Learning Opportunities

  • Read a guest essay. You can read a former data scientist’s recommendations on how to regulate algorithms, Kara Swisher’s interview with the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former head of security at Facebook, or an essay that asks if Facebook should “go away forever.” What points do you agree and disagree with? How do these pieces change or reinforce your opinion of Facebook?

  • Write a letter to your senator. Explain what you should think should happen next with Facebook. You can share your own experiences with Facebook and Instagram — what you find fulfilling about the sites and what you find concerning. (If you don’t know where to start, read what other teens have said about their relationship to social media and mental health and react to their comments.) Then, provide two or three recommendations for how you think Congress should handle Facebook. Finally, find out how to send your letter.


Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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