Members of the US House of Representatives held a hearing on Thursday about role antisocial networks have played in radicalizing America.
They did so amid a bitterly partisan election expected to set a record for political ad spending, much of which will enrich social media companies like Facebook.
Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, delivered the opening remarks in which he warned that the internet has become the incubator of extremism and social media platforms have become the primary distributors of bigotry, conspiracy theories, and incitements to violence.
"Social media companies represent their platforms as forums for connecting people, but the ability to connect like-minded people and susceptible individuals is being exploited by extremists to recruit and radicalize people," he said.
Reality sometimes has the same effect. The hearing occurred the day after protests in various US cities following the polarizing decision by a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, that the only charge to be made in the investigation of three police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor would be a reckless engagement indictment against one of the officers who shot into a neighbor's apartment.
The ability to connect like-minded people and susceptible individuals is being exploited by extremists to recruit and radicalize people
Social media platforms, Pallone argued, aim for audience growth and engagement by spreading lies and generating outrage, because such content attracts attention more effectively.
The algorithms of social media companies "are programmed to optimize growth and engagement often without consideration of the content that achieves it," he argued. "These algorithms don’t just let harmful content exist on the platform, they actually amplify it."
To underscore that point, Tim Kendall, who served as Facebook's director of monetization from 2006 through 2010 and now runs a company offering an app for breaking social media addiction, was invited to testify.
Other former employees have slammed Facebook and its leadership after leaving the company. Earlier this month, Facebook software engineer Ashok Chandwaney made waves with a resignation letter posted to the company's internal network.
"I'm quitting because I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally," Chandwaney wrote [PDF].
I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally
But Kendall's indictment of social media and Facebook in particular is damning because it suggests that such services have been deliberately designed for discord. "[T]he social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity," he said in prepared remarks [PDF]. "At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war."
He said that as director of monetization, his job was to help figure out a business model for Facebook, one that he initially thought would balance the needs of the company, shareholders, and users. Instead, the company has sought to increase usage and attention through increasingly provocative content, a strategy Kendall likened to the way tobacco companies juiced their product by making nicotine more potent, by adding sugar and menthol, anything to amplify the addiction.
"Extreme, incendiary content – think shocking images, graphic videos, and headlines that incite outrage – sowed tribalism and division," he said. "And this result has been unprecedented engagement – and profits."
Correction: Last month, we called Zuckerberg a moron. We apologize. In fact, he and Facebook are a fscking disgraceREAD MORE
Facebook's capacity to get people to pay attention is also the reason politicians use it to advertise. The Trump and Biden campaigns are spending millions on Facebook ads. Pallone's campaign has spent $7,570 on Facebook ads since June 25.
According to Kendall, Facebook has long known about its toxicity and has refused to take effective countermeasures.
"In 2016, internal analysis at Facebook found 64 per cent of all extremist group joins were due to their own recommendation tools," he said. "Yet repeated attempts to counteract this problem were ignored or shut down." And he pushed back against claims made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the site empowers people and promotes free expression.
"When it comes to misinformation, these companies hide behind the First Amendment and say they stand for free speech," he said. "At the same time, their algorithms continually choose whose voice is actually heard."
Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but feel free to peruse Zuckerberg's letter [PDF] a year ago to the internet goliath's Oversight Board. It contains reassuring remarks like:
"We believe the more people who have the power to express themselves, the more progress our society makes together." ®