Facebook internal documents leaked to 17 U.S. news organizations revealed the company struggles to identify how many users it actually has, is failing to keep young people on its platform, and knows that its algorithm facilitates political extremism.
The Wall Street Journal’s “The Facebook Files” — an investigation released in September that proved the company is aware of the social and political harms it causes — initiated a storm of articles and senate hearings exploring the allegations being waged against the company. The Journals’ coverage relied on internal documents provided by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Haugen has since opened up the internal documents to 17 U.S. news organizations and a distinct group of European outlets. The result: A flurry of news stories that pick apart thousands of pages of documents, deemed “The Facebook Papers,” that give an inside look at Facebook’s most vulnerable moments. We’ve identified some of the key issues surrounding the technology giant.
- Instagram and teenage girls: One of the top issues that has emerged from the leaked Facebook documents is Instagram’s impact on the mental health of teenage girls. The Wall Street Journal first detailed some of the findings of Facebook’s internal research in September as a part of “The Facebook Files” series. The story explained that Facebook knew 32% of girls who felt bad about their bodies felt worse after looking at Instagram, and 6% of American teens who had experienced suicidal thoughts linked them to Instagram. While these findings sparked outrage, Dr. Laurence Steinberg argued in a New York Times op-ed that we do not have enough evidence to say whether or not Instagram harms teen girls. Facebook also released a company statement that pushed back on The Journal’s characterization of their research, highlighting that some teen girls said Instagram helped their mental health. What did an expert tell us? Facebook “has known this forever.”
- A look at whistleblower Frances Haugen: Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, has emerged at the center of the controversy. A New York Times’ media column revealed that Haugen chose The Journal because she viewed Jeff Horwitz, who notoriously wore a matching suit and headband combo on Meet the Press, as “less sensationalistic” than other reporters. The column also gave a glimpse into who Haugen is and her personal financial situation: She was an early investor in cryptocurrency and moved to Puerto Rico for a health reason (and potentially to avoid paying taxes on her gains).
- Facebook’s battle to attract young users: Facebook is quickly losing traction among teenagers: The Facebook app experienced a 13% drop in U.S. teen users since 2019, The Verge reported. The story provides context for Instagram’s paused effort to create a platform just for kids, the rise of TikTok, and the future viability of Facebook. The company also struggles to keep track of how many users are on its platform given the amount of users with multiple accounts, The Journal reported.
- QAnon and political extremism in the US: Facebook has been accused of providing a platform for far-right conspiracy groups to recruit new followers. According to Politico’s story, Facebook knows that its products help groups like QAnon grow and that its efforts to control the spread of hate on its platforms have failed. NBC also reported on how the capitol insurrection and fallout after the 2020 U.S. presidential election prompted efforts to reform Facebook with results that “remain to be seen.”
- Facebook’s role in human trafficking and ethnic cleansing: The technology giant has also faced criticism for the role it plays in ethnic cleansing and human trafficking. Haugen said that she views Facebook’s impact on the “global south” to be one of the most pressing issues facing the company. A New York Times article revealed that Facebook’s problems are “amplified” in India. A story from CNN highlighted how Facebook has failed to resolve how its platform promotes human trafficking. An article from The Verge showed that Facebook opted to enforce increased protections during global elections and instituted a tier system to prioritize which countries received the most support.