The Facebook whistleblower says its algorithms are dangerous. Here’s why.

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In her testimony, Haugen also repeatedly emphasized how these phenomena are far worse in regions that don’t speak English because of Facebook’s uneven coverage of different languages.

“In the case of Ethiopia there are 100 million people and six languages. Facebook only supports two of those languages for integrity systems,” she said. “This strategy of focusing on language-specific, content-specific systems for AI to save us is doomed to fail.”

She continued: “So investing in non-content-based ways to slow the platform down not only protects our freedom of speech, it protects people’s lives.”

I explore this more in a different article from earlier this year on the limitations of large language models, or LLMs:

Despite LLMs having these linguistic deficiencies, Facebook relies heavily on them to automate its content moderation globally. When the war in Tigray[, Ethiopia] first broke out in November, [AI ethics researcher Timnit] Gebru saw the platform flounder to get a handle on the flurry of misinformation. This is emblematic of a persistent pattern that researchers have observed in content moderation. Communities that speak languages not prioritized by Silicon Valley suffer the most hostile digital environments.

Gebru noted that this isn’t where the harm ends, either. When fake news, hate speech, and even death threats aren’t moderated out, they are then scraped as training data to build the next generation of LLMs. And those models, parroting back what they’re trained on, end up regurgitating these toxic linguistic patterns on the internet.

How does Facebook’s content ranking relate to teen mental health?

One of the more shocking revelations from the Journal’s Facebook Files was Instagram’s internal research, which found that its platform is worsening mental health among teenage girls. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” researchers wrote in a slide presentation from March 2020.

Haugen connects this phenomenon to engagement-based ranking systems as well, which she told the Senate today “is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content.”

“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers,” she continued. “There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.”

In my own reporting, I heard from a former AI researcher who also saw this effect extend to Facebook.

The researcher’s team…found that users with a tendency to post or engage with melancholy content—a possible sign of depression—could easily spiral into consuming increasingly negative material that risked further worsening their mental health.

But as with Haugen, the researcher found that leadership wasn’t interested in making fundamental algorithmic changes.

The team proposed tweaking the content-ranking models for these users to stop maximizing engagement alone, so they would be shown less of the depressing stuff. “The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?” he remembers.

But anything that reduced engagement, even for reasons such as not exacerbating someone’s depression, led to a lot of hemming and hawing among leadership. With their performance reviews and salaries tied to the successful completion of projects, employees quickly learned to drop those that received pushback and continue working on those dictated from the top down….

That former employee, meanwhile, no longer lets his daughter use Facebook.

How do we fix this?

Haugen is against breaking up Facebook or repealing Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from taking responsibility for the content it distributes.

Instead, she recommends carving out a more targeted exemption in Section 230 for algorithmic ranking, which she argues would “get rid of the engagement-based ranking.” She also advocates for a return to Facebook’s chronological news feed.

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