Though Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels have connected relatives and long-lost friends, provided platforms for oppressed voices, helped people explore their identities and see perspectives and parts of the world removed from their day-to-day lives, there have also been negative consequences.

Recently, two leading critics of social media sat down with Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, to explore the potential harms the popular platforms can cause.  

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who testified before Congress that the social media giant should be subject to more government regulation, and Jeff Orlowski-Yang, director of the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” discussed how social media is unraveling personal privacy and society. But that wasn’t what the platforms set out to do, according to Orlowski-Yang.

“That was just the unintended consequence of a particular design and a particular business model that grew far beyond [the companies’] expectations and their hopes and desires,” Orlowski-Yang said.

It’s not a new topic. But the speakers gave the audience insight into the well-known issues that for now, evade a workable solution. The event was sponsored by the Common Experience at UCLA, which each year selects a title for the UCLA community to read, listen to or watch together that could inspire action. This year’s choice was “The Social Dilemma.”

Orlowski-Yang drew parallels between the damage caused by energy firms and social media. It occurred to him while working on environmental change documentaries such as “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” that fossil fuel and tech companies have become “the richest industries in the history of money.”

“These are really, really profitable industries that both have huge, negative harms and implications for society,” Orlowski-Yang said. “It’s not that anybody at Google or Facebook said, ‘How do we mess up civilization? How do we milk people’s emotions?’ That was never the goal.”

He said that while Facebook claims to be a “neutral” compiler of information, the company and other platforms tell advertisers that they can influence their target markets. Using algorithms, the platforms can finely tune what their users see, including how many ads pop up in their feeds and which ones they’re most likely to click on.

“This is an algorithm that is then running a live auction. Every time you do a search on Google — there are over 40,000 searches a second — every single search is a live auction of each and every one of you … who is going to spend the most money to put something in front of you right now?”

Digital breadcrumbs

The effects of social media manipulation can extend to the global economy, Haugen said, with possibly “significant social control implications” going forward as more countries invest in AI surveillance technologies such as facial recognition.

Many retailers already use cameras outside their stores to see who stops and looks in the window. And stores can even track which aisle shoppers are in when they connect to Wi-Fi — data that is gold in retail.

“It may seem like it’s low consequence, but if it gets used to steal power from us, that really matters,” Haugen said. “The reality is, being able to profile people and the connections between those people is really powerful because it allows people how to understand how to influence you.”

That was a key reason why Haugen, who was recruited to Facebook in 2019 as lead product manager on the company’s civic misinformation team, felt she had to speak up. The company’s prioritization of profit over public safety put people’s lives at risk, she said.

In late 2020, she blew the whistle on Facebook, with initial reporting by the Wall Street Journal. Revelations from her disclosures became known as “The Facebook Files.” Haugen has since testified in front of Congress, the United Kingdom and European Union parliaments, the French Senate and National Assembly, and discussed with lawmakers how to address the negative effects of social media platforms.

Consumers can choose to buy physical goods, like diamonds, from sustainable sources that pay workers a fair wage. But Haugen points out that’s not the case with social media.

“There are laws in many parts of the world that say we have a right to understand the supply chains of the companies for the things that we consume,” she said. “We’ve seen what happens when people have blood diamonds, when people use children to extract precious metals. The only way we can have the market correct this is if we actually get to make choices.”

Srinivasan, who also has an appointment in design media arts, noted that labor and nature were used as raw materials to fuel industrial capitalism. And this led to major conflicts throughout history.

“Now the argument is being made that our anxieties and our emotions are the raw materials — the social media versions — of digital capitalism,” he said. “Everything we do these days seems to triangulate or leave some digital footprint. All of that, in opaque and often mysterious and puzzling ways is also being extracted for profit and valuation.”

So far, social media companies haven’t really had to police themselves. But the Digital Services Act, which is being finalized by the European Union, could soon change that. The act may tech companies accountable for illegal content on their platforms, for instance, and provide more safeguards for minors.

That’s at least a start, Haugen said. “Part of what’s so scary about these systems of information extraction, of commercializing your feelings and your anxieties … is that we never get to see what we’re actually consuming. We don’t have a nutritional [information] label — like for food — for what goes into our minds.”