By Cheyenne Hunt-Majer
The State of The Union is like the Superbowl of politics, garnering viewership in the tens of millions and allowing the President to review their successes and preview the administration’s most important agenda items for the year ahead. Generally, if an individual is invited to attend this high-profile event in connection to a certain policy point, it’s a sign that the administration is making the related issue a top priority. First Lady Jill Biden invited a handful of symbolic guests to the 2022 State of the Union address including Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen. During his remarks, President Biden acknowledged her courage and conviction, referencing her bombshell whistleblower complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Haugen released thousands of internal documents providing incontrovertible evidence that, despite its claims otherwise, Facebook (now called Meta) has promoted hate speech, fake news, eating disorders , election manipulation, child exploitation, violence, white supremacy, vaccine misinformation, and much more. Biden went on to cite Haugen’s revelations regarding the way content ranking algorithms on Facebook and Instagram negatively impact children and highlighted the need to rein in Big Tech to protect kids and their mental health. Some of the most disturbing aspects of Haugen’s complaints relate to Instagram (also a Meta company) knowingly promoting eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide to kids and teens on their platform. For the last three years, Meta has been conducting research on the impact that Instagram has on its millions of young users. That research found, “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”. A slide summarizing the data on young women read, “we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
As for Instagram’s effects on mental health in general, the picture is just as bleak. Internal reports on mental health read, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression… this reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” Additionally, 13 percent of British teen users and 6 percent of American teen users who reported experiencing suicidal thoughts traced the desire to kill themselves back to Instagram. A presentation citing this research was brought to top Meta executives including Mark Zuckerberg in 2020, but he continued to downplay Instagram’s negative impact on kids and teens. In a 2021 congressional hearing, Zuckerberg was asked about the mental health effects of his products on children and stated, “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits.”
Now that Meta’s deliberate indifference regarding the wellbeing of its younger users has been exposed, a broader conversation has emerged about the need to rein in Big Tech. In his State of the Union address, President Biden called for stronger privacy protections, a ban on targeted advertising to children, and a stop to personal data collection on kids. The administration clearly recognizes that children and teens are vulnerable and that much stronger protections are needed to allow young people to use the internet safely. Protecting children is essential, but it isn’t enough. Haugen’s whistleblower complaints highlight a number of other troubling practices at the company that threaten user privacy, democracy, and human rights and these issues must also be addressed.
The internal documents released by Haugen revealed that Meta privately and thoroughly tracked a myriad of harms caused by its products, including the use of a ranking algorithm that promoted the proliferation of hate speech and incited real-world violence along with content moderation decisions that fueled a genocide in Myanmar and ethnic violence in India. Communications between Facebook employees reveal that the same engagement-based algorithm rewarded and promoted extremist political content, undermining democracy and contributing to the radicalization leading to the January 6th insurrection. The company also routinely engages in anticompetitive behaviors and is currently being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for abuse of its monopolistic power through a pattern of acquisitions which the agency has described as a “buy-or-bury” strategy. These decisions are motivated by profit, and, as Haugen has said, until the cost of staying the same becomes greater than the cost of changing., Meta has every incentive to continue its bad behavior against all of their users.
In an interview, Haugen explained that a fundamental issue at Meta is the lack of recognition by company leadership that its immense power inherently comes with significant responsibility. Part of the system at Meta that permits this dangerous disconnection between power and responsibility is its dual class stock structure. Most companies issue a single class of common stock, giving each shareholder equal voting rights and ensuring that the board of directors are accountable to the shareholders. Meta has a dual class share structure with both Class A and Class B shares. Shareholders enjoy one vote for each Class A share, while holders of Class B stock get 10 votes for each Class B share. Mark Zuckerberg holds 81.7 percent of the Class B stock, and therein controls 52.9 percent of all votes. Of total shares, Zuckerberg only holds about 13 percent.
In a well governed company, a board chair is primarily responsible for overseeing the CEO. At Meta, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is also the board chair. Facebook shareholders voted by a 68 percent plurality to strip Zuckerberg of his role as chair, but Zuckerberg’s super-votes nixed that true majority. In a well governed company, the entire board oversees the CEO and acts independently in the best interest of the company and its shareholders. This isn’t possible at Meta because Zuckerberg controls the shares that elect the board. Independent shareholders attempted to terminate the dual class system, voting by a margin of 83 percent in 2019, but this effort also failed because of Zuckerberg’s unilateral veto power.
As a matter of public policy, it is dangerous to strip away one of the key tools of discipline for a company like Meta that has such an immense impact on society. Washington regulators can and do bring enforcement actions for misconduct, but Meta is hardly bothered by writing a check and paying a fine to settle these cases. Shareholders must also be empowered to serve on the front line of discipline.
Congress, as well as agencies such as the SEC and FTC, must now act to restore shareholders’ rights, regulate Big Tech, and break up Meta’s monopoly that threatens civil rights, competition, and democracy itself. Big Tech companies are now among the top corporate lobbying spenders in the country, and they are likely to throw everything they have into stopping commonsense measures that would make these platforms safer and healthier at the expense of any portion of their massive advertising revenue. It’s more important than ever for lawmakers and agencies to show their independence and bring these companies to account, especially since Meta’s leadership has proven that they won’t do the right thing on their own.