BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The internal records Frances Haugen has revealed over the past couple of weeks exposed Facebook's full awareness of its own turpitude and its chronic lack of repentance, which has come as a surprise to absolutely no one. But what to do? Despite the damning evidence, much of the coverage seemed to focus on the company's almighty power and reach, as if Facebook were the übermensch of companies, rising above common morality to create and impose its own values. After all, if users were citizens, Facebook would be the largest nation on the planet. And yet there may be another way to look at The Facebook Files.
KEVIN ROOSE Yeah, this is one of the most sort of counterintuitive things that I took away from the Facebook files, which you know is all about how Facebook is abusing its power, researching its own flaws and not doing anything about them. But buried in there, if you kind of look at it as a business story, what you see is that Facebook is really desperate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kevin Roose is a technology columnist for The New York Times.
KEVIN ROOSE It is losing users in this young user age cohort that it so covets. For example, there was a story about Facebook's attempts to win over pre-teen and teenage users, including figuring out how to, quote, leverage playdates, a sentence that a lot of people took note of and mocked but buried in there was a very interesting statistic, which was that Facebook's own researchers were predicting that teenagers in the U.S., their daily use of Facebook was going to decline 45 percent by 2023. And it also revealed that Instagram, which for many years was sort of the young person's Facebook. They're losing market share to TikTok and other apps. And younger users aren't posting as much as they used to. And so this is really a different story about Facebook, which is that the moves it's making that are very controversial, such as going after pre-teen users, they're really rooted in desperation. They need young people or else it's just going to keep becoming older and older and less and less culturally relevant, and eventually it will die.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've suggested that if Facebook hadn't purchased Instagram, then it might have gone the way of Myspace.
KEVIN ROOSE Social networks don't live forever. Friendster was really popular, and then Friendster died. Myspace was really popular, and then Myspace died. Facebook is really an anomaly in how long it's lasted. Most tech products that were started 15 or 20 years ago are not still popular today. Facebook has been able to buck that trend, in part because of its acquisition of Instagram, which sort of gave it another few years of relevance with young people, but we're seeing now they're more interested in things like TikTok and Snapchat, and that's an existential problem for Facebook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've suggested that a good way to think about Facebook's problems is that they come in two primary flavors. One is having too many users, and the other is having too few of the kinds of users that it wants.
KEVIN ROOSE This is something that I think a lot of people misunderstand about Facebook. How could Facebook be scared about irrelevance? They're huge all over the world, and I would say that's true. Facebook has billions of users. More than 90 percent of them are outside the United States, and a lot of its reputational problems come from not being able to adequately protect those users from harms in other parts of the world where it doesn't have thousands of employees or people who speak the languages. So that is a too many users problem. But then there are these other problems which are that they're really grasping for relevance among young, culturally influential people here in the states. I think those problems often get conflated, but they're really quite different. In one of them, Facebook is struggling to catch up to the growth that it has already achieved. And in another area, it is desperately scrambling to grow faster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Facebook Files offered evidence of both problems. One is the company's botched attempts to stop criminal activity and human rights abuses.
KEVIN ROOSE Yes, so that's the part of The Facebook Files that has to do with human trafficking and drug cartels and, you know, horrible ethnic violence in parts of the world where Facebook barely has anyone who can effectively manage the platform. Facebook expanded really, really quickly around the world, and some would argue too quickly to actually act responsibly in those places. But importantly, if you just look at this as a business story, those users are not nearly as valuable as the young U.S. users that many advertisers are trying to reach. Facebook makes a lot more money per user in the United States and. North America than it does in what it calls the rest of the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can it get those users back?
KEVIN ROOSE It has 10,000 people working on, you know, augmented and virtual reality products now, and it's really betting that that's going to be the next big thing, but it's still very much a hypothesis. They don't know whether those things will work, and so far the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm-Hmm. Let's say you're right. We still have the narrative, and Facebook is rarely discussed by anyone, whether in Congress or in the media, as a company in decline. Do you think that being seen as the 900-pound gorilla, the inevitable over dog is good for Facebook or not?
KEVIN ROOSE It's strange, right? Because these two things are simultaneously true that Facebook is powerful. It is huge, and its decisions about its algorithms and its products resonate around the world. And it is also true that Facebook may be past its prime. It's having a hard time recruiting and retaining talent because, you know, nobody wants to work for a company that's being compared to tobacco companies, and they're having a lot of trouble getting new products off the ground now because of all this regulatory scrutiny. So it is true that they are big and established and dominant, and it is also true that they are in many ways in decline.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I wonder is what Facebook does much worse than what goes on elsewhere? I mean, I'm thinking of TikTok, which may not have to leverage play dates, but it's certainly set up to be addicting. You know, infinite content tailored with frightening accuracy to a user's preference. I assume that all of these sites leverage dopamine.
KEVIN ROOSE Well, I think what makes Facebook different is that they have these teams of, you know, hundreds of PhDs and social scientists and data scientists who they've asked to look into these issues to find the skeletons in their closets in a way that a lot of other social networks have not done and maybe would not do. And then once those researchers learn what the problems of the platforms are and present those findings to executives, often the response is silence. And so I think their inaction is what separates them. It's not necessarily that they're the only platform where bad things happen. That's not true. We know that, but they do have an uncommonly clear picture of what's happening on their platforms. And what they've chosen to do with that so far is not much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You kind of wonder why they do the research if it just makes them look bad.
KEVIN ROOSE Well, I think they genuinely think that the research will vindicate them and that actually, if you just look at the data and do the research that you'll find that actually Facebook is producing all kinds of good effects in the world like the I think they genuinely felt – executives there genuinely felt like this research would shed light on the fact that they were doing more good than harm. That's maybe the original mistake that the executives made when they commissioned the research is they didn't really know what they were looking into. They didn't know how many skeletons were in the closet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about Congress? Do you sense a change in the wind? Are we still stuck in? The vortex of Zuck comes and says he's sorry and doesn't do anything, and Congress just moves on to other things. You think Congress is going to regulate Facebook?
KEVIN ROOSE Boy, I don't know. I probably covered a dozen of these hearings now – it feels like at least. And each time I tell myself, this is the time, this is the time that Congress is ultimately going to get its act together and come up with some regulation for these social media companies and every time it ends up not happening. So I do think this is different. I think, for instance, Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, is a compelling and knowledgeable source that Congress can lean on. I think there are a number of other advantages they have right now with this internal research. But ultimately, you know, I'm just not that confident that this is the time that its going to be different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, there are certainly a lot of proposals around to protect kids and to protect privacy. Haven't you suggested that maybe the best way to go would be to empower a social network that would behave responsibly or just increase the ability for other companies to compete?
KEVIN ROOSE Absolutely. I mean, I think that the best thing that Congress could do if its goal is to just reduce the influence of Facebook, make Facebook less destructive, what it should be looking at is ways that it can help other companies compete with Facebook because ultimately, that is the biggest risk the company faces. It's this risk of abandonment. I mean, it really is the thing that keeps their executives up at night. It's not some new privacy bill. It's not some new regulation. They have all the money in the world to deal with that. What really keeps them up at night is this idea that no one wants to use their products anymore, or at least no one that they care about wants to use these products.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You drew a fascinating analogy between Facebook and Myspace. Myspace, once a very popular social media platform, died of, I guess you'd call them natural causes. Lagging popularity, not aggressive regulation, but it was a slow and painful death. What should we be wary of as news consumers of a Facebook in decline?
KEVIN ROOSE I don't think that if you are a person who is critical of Facebook, the fact that it's in decline shouldn't necessarily make you optimistic because of what we know from looking at Myspace and Friendster and other declined social media networks is that they can often do a lot of damage on the way down. So Myspace just became seedier and seedier as it became, you know, a ghost town. Like an abandoned alleyway at a certain point where, like, you would only go if you were trying to scam someone or do something illegal. The company resorted to a lot of different tactics to keep people hooked on the platform, even as they were migrating elsewhere. And so I think the same thing could happen at Facebook. We could see it becoming, you know, a place where only, you know, scammers and, you know, hyperpartisan people and people who are unscrupulous want to go. And we could also see the company resorting to more desperate and desperate attempts to keep people on the platform in ways that are really harmful for society,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like...?
KEVIN ROOSE Well, like this change that they made into in 2018. This meaningful social interactions algorithm change where they emphasized posts from family and friends that were sort of emotional that inspired a lot of engagement. Hear more from your friends and family and less from these random media brands. And but what ended up happening was that it's supercharged outrage. Content that made people very angry was also the content that garnered a lot of engagement. And so they ended up boosting the prevalence of angry and outrageous content on the platform. And that's the kind of thing that we could see more of if they do start to get more desperate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think they knew that that would happen?
KEVIN ROOSE I don't think that there's probably a memo hiding somewhere that says, you know, let's dial up the outrage and it'll really retain users that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They know that engagement is supercharged by anger.
KEVIN ROOSE I mean, what we do know is that their researchers were telling them, 'Hey, this meaningful social interactions change, this algorithm change. It's actually making people angrier. And it's not only making people angrier. It's making political parties angrier and more divisive because they've learned that in order for their content to perform well on Facebook, they need to take increasingly extreme positions.' And so their researchers were telling them this loudly and clearly, and they still saw the numbers going in the direction that-- that indicated that they liked this change. And so they stuck with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE QED, Kevin
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL [chuckles] QED.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
KEVIN ROOSE Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kevin Roose writes about technology for The New York Times. His column this week was: 'Facebook Was Weaker than We Knew.' Coming up, history's biggest tax leak reveals a system of lawbreaking and hypocrisy enabled by the rich in rich nations, ours included. This is On the Media.