The Social Dilemma Continues

On October 5, 2021, former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a US Senate subcommittee on Commerce, giving the world a detailed glimpse into Facebook’s ethics and profit motives. The documents revealed in the hearing illustrate the ways in which Facebook’s algorithms ignore user wellbeing and safety.

Haugen stated that her intention for revealing the Facebook documents, testifying in Congress, and appearing on the cover of magazines is to let it be known that Facebook cares more about profits than public safety. “Facebook makes more money when you consume more content. People enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction. And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact and the more they consume,” she said in an interview with 60 Minutes

The revelations in Haugen’s testimony renewed public concern about the role social media plays in the lives of teens and young adults. Facebook’s own research found that Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook acquired in 2012, contribute to mental health and body image issues in young people around the world. Tufts students who grew up with social media and engage with these platforms daily feel the impacts of these harmful cycles and are taking their own measures to mitigate the effects.

Facebook has intentionally covered up research that shows a clear link between the use of their products and negative self-image in young people, according to Haugen. This has cast Facebook’s business and platform models in a new light. Facebook and Instagram have increasingly shifted their designs over the years to promote passive content, such as autoplay videos and reels of viral content, without the consideration of the impact that high consumption rates of this content have on one’s mental health. Junior El Kocay expressed concern with the ways in which these types of content streams help harmful content go viral. “I think the speed at which things go viral on, say, Facebook, is one of the most negative aspects of it in that there’s no time to fact check or think critically before information is disseminated to millions and millions of people,” they said. 

Kocay actively stays off Facebook and limits their Instagram usage to avoid the negativity they believe these platforms create. To them, social media is meant to be relaxing, but political polarization and hate speech in these spaces takes that away from them. “To have polarized debate and… hate speech on something that’s meant to be fun and relaxing [takes a] toll on [one’s] mental health,” they said. When they do engage with social media platforms, they make conscious choices about what they want to see on their feed. “For Instagram my tactic is, I just use real media outlets for my news. I keep Instagram what I feel like it should be: a way to keep in contact with friends. And I keep it personal,” they continued.

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine, expressed concerns about higher depression rates among young people than in past generations. He said, “This high rate of depression has no biological explanation. Instead, it appears to be caused by engagement with social media on smartphones.” Of all social media platforms teens and young adults engage with, Ghaemi reports that Snapchat and Instagram are the social media platforms most associated with higher rates of anxiety. 

Mi’lexus Milton, a graduate student at Tufts, believes the mental exhaustion created by social media is linked to their algorithms, the way these platforms decide which content to share with users. “The system is now set up to reward and even exploit negative triggers. They don’t care how divisive the content is as long as it’s driving engagement. In that regard it is mentally exhausting because hate is constantly amplified on social media,” she wrote in an email to the Tufts Observer

For senior Victoria DeJoy, scrolling through Instagram is a way to pass the time. “Before I know it, I’ve spent an hour absorbing even more boring, empty clickbait content, which always leaves me feeling more empty than before I picked up my phone,” she said. However, DeJoy tries to monitor herself. “If I notice that I’ve been sucked in, I sometimes change the settings on my phone to limit my app use and screen time,” she added.

Milton tries to mitigate social media’s negative impacts by utilizing existing features on social media platforms. “I have also made the decision to have two different profiles on Instagram, one for my personal friends and the others to follow celebrities or brands I like. I also have taken advantage of the new feature where you can hide the number of likes your photos get. On Facebook, I unfollowed a lot of the pages I liked when I was younger,” she said. 

Instagram’s internal research found the platform most notably affects young women and girls’ perceptions of themselves and their bodies. With the rise of the “influencer,” students expressed their discomfort with the unrealistic body standards perpetuated by social media. “You also have influencers and celebrities who naturally have a lot of engagement and they are constantly posting about brand deals, like teas that are supposed to make you lose weight, and they are selling these unrealistic body types and having every day people aspire to unrealistic goals,” said Milton. 

However, this content is optimized by Instagram’s algorithm. Content by influencers is prioritized, without consideration of the messages it sends to their audience. “When all you see of someone’s life is their most perfect, overly edited version of themselves, it becomes hard not to compare it to your own,” said DeJoy. “And social media platforms seem to be rewarding influencers for their inauthenticity. I have to remind myself and my friends that most of it isn’t real.”

Instagram’s algorithm prioritizing more curated content creates more pressure for young adults when posting online. “I feel like over the past few years it has become more and more of a big deal when posting. People care way too much now about posting times, filters, and curating this image of what they want to show people, seeking external validation,” said Milton.

Worries about disinformation and social media have also resurfaced after Haugen’s testimony. “Another downside is the disinformation that is shared, which has become a huge problem over the last few years especially. Whether it is the election, or COVID, these algorithms have definitely exacerbated the current tension we see in America today and across the world,” said Milton. She believes there needs to be a greater push for efficient content moderation from these platforms. 

The government has heard testimonies beyond Haugen’s against Facebook; however, there has not been concrete policy actions as a result. According to Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School, “These hearings have devolved into becoming platforms for politicians to feature on Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network or in headlines on the business pages of newspapers. They lose their value if they keep occurring on a regular basis with one docket of complaints after another, with no meaningful change in legislation.” 

For some students, a commitment to public safety outweighs freedom of speech. “We really pride ourselves on being able to voice our opinions in this country, but it gets to a dangerous point when you think about the impacts on mental health or the effects of misinformation. At what point is the government constitutionally allowed to step in? I don’t know, but that definitely needs to be explored,” said Kocay. 

National policy changes might be the only avenue to formally regulate companies such as Facebook. Haugen said in her congressional testimony, We need to have more transparency. If we want to have a system that is coherent with democracy, we must have public oversight from Congress.” Until then, students will have to continue to craft their own relationship with social media and its omnipresence in society.