“Stop trusting Facebook”: platform whistleblower warns MPs on dangers of unchecked Facebook

Reset Australia

Australian politicians have been urged to “stop trusting Facebook” and that greater transparency is needed to tackle the threats the platform poses to our children, our public safety, and our democracy, during a high level briefing from the Facebook whistle blower organised by Reset Australia and Mr Julian Simmonds MP.

Frances Haugen, the senior Facebook executive who blew the whistle on the social media platform’s poor behaviour, told the forum that despite Facebook’s claims it was acting on issues of misinformation, polarisation, and other digital harms, independent oversight was needed.

“Stop trusting Facebook,” Ms Haugen told a group of parliamentarians over Zoom. “The question of democracies being endangered is a real, real question.”

Ms Haugen warned Facebook’s efforts to tackle political polarisation in the US wouldn’t necessarily scale to also keep Australian users safer. Instead, Australian policymakers should demand greater transparency about what Australian users are seeing and sharing, in line with Reset Australia’s own Live List policy, which could be expanded to include election-related content.

“I guarantee you, Australia is not a top priority,” Ms Haugen said. “There is no way that Facebook can act in a safe way globally, without sharing data. There’s no way smaller countries are going to be able to kept safe, unless they can access their data.”

Reset Australia, the local arm of the global initiative tackling digital threats to democracy, organised the briefing ahead of the upcoming federal election.

“After hearing from Frances Haugen today it is clear that unregulated Big Tech is just as dangerous in Australia as it has been in the United States,” Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran, Reset Australia’s director of tech policy.

“The social fault lines might be different to those in the US, but Australia is not immune to the harmful by-products of Big Tech. We know Kosovo troll farms stoked outrage in Australia with xenophobic content, bots swarmed Twitter, and Facebook spotted 2.2 billion fake accounts between January and March 2019.

“We saw how easily Facebook ‘switched off the news’ during a global pandemic and failed to remove the bogus death tax claims. Facebook groups promoting COVID-19 misinformation continue to grow.”

In conjunction with the briefing, Reset Australia has also released a policy memo which outlines policy directions Australia could take to begin to reign in the unchecked powers of social media.

“If we are serious about protecting our democracy and social cohesion from the ravages of misinformation, disinformation, extremism and polarisation then we urgently need to move away from the current self-regulation model.”

Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran said the failure of self-regulation was exemplified by DIGI’s recent misinformation code – which is voluntary and has no meaningful independent enforcement.

Internationally a shift towards legally enforceable regulation, such as the EU’s Digital Services Act, is being seen. Reset Australia says a tougher regulation approach should also be adopted in Australia.

The top three policy directions Reset Australia is calling for are:

  • Increased transparency so evidence-based solutions can be found. This would include the introduction of “live lists” of the top trending issues during contentious periods – such as pandemics and elections.

  • A shift towards systemic issues, rather than focusing on content takedowns and user identification. Design features and algorithms that promote harmful content are at the root of the problem, and need to be tackled.

  • A ‘Black Letter Law’ by default approach which develops robust, legislated regulation which is enforced by independent arbitrators and written by policymakers, not the industry.

“Put simply, social media companies promote, amplify and profit from hate,” said Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran

“Algorithms are designed to amplify the most sensational and extreme content, because that is what keeps us glued to our phones and scrolling through platforms so that more value can be extracted from us.

“Facebook, as Haugen says, puts “astronomical profits before people” – any intervention needs to meaningfully tackle Big Tech’s business model, which is at the root of this problem.

“Downstream interventions, such as ending anonymity, won’t fix the systemic problem. But there are a number of useful upstream interventions the government could make, to begin to bring Big Tech into line.

“Ultimately, we need to compel social media platforms to operate in line with public expectations. To do this we must hold them accountable for the harm they cause, not the anonymous users who take advantage of the unregulated space.”

/Public Release.