Sara Tabin, Contributing Photographer

On Thursday night, the Information Society Project at the Yale Law School hosted Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as part of a panel of activists and academics that discussed reform of social media platforms.

Haugen testified to the U.S. Congress on Oct. 5, claiming that Facebook was aware of the harm it caused — such as negative effects on teens’ mental health — but did not respond with significant changes. Thursday’s event was divided into two sections. The first portion featured a panel of activists involved with technology and social media including Haugen, president and co-founder of the Center for Human Technology Tristan Harris, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff and deputy director of Reset Tech Meetali Jain. Then, the event transitioned into a panel of academic experts who discussed possible legal regulations for Facebook. These panelists included law professor Jack Balkin and UC Irvine professor David Kaye.

“I believe that we still have time to be able to have social media that brings out the best in humanity, but that is not going to come about unless we help guide Facebook in that direction,” Haugen said at the beginning of the event.

Drawing from their own experience in different fields, the activists noted the behavioral, social, governmental and technological changes that are needed to reform Facebook. The topic of virality — a measure of how quickly and to how many people an image is spread — was of special interest to the activists. Harris proposed that making it harder for an image to go viral, by limiting the number of times an image could be shared for example, would make Facebook safer in a short period of time.

Limiting virality would still allow for social movements, like Black Lives Matter, to organize over Facebook, according to Haugen. She pointed to the example of Pantsuit Nation, a feminist activist group that effectively organized a large-scale social movement through Facebok even though the organization was originally not optimized to grow, given that its initial Facebook group was private and invite-only.

The panelists agreed that legislative action was necessary to properly regulate Facebook.

“These are conversations that have to be held among citizens and lawmakers as we craft a digital and democratic century,” Zuboff said. “As much as we can urge Facebook to tweak [its platform], that is not the solution. The solution is that the digital has to live in democracy’s house.”

Panelists proposed legislative action to address Facebook’s current problems, particularly because failures in the law were identified as significant factors in Facebook’s existing issues. Self-regulation is not an effective solution since underlying business models need to be changed to effectively regulate Facebook, Balkin said.

The panelists proposed reforming section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which dictates that social media companies are not liable for third party content on their platforms. They also proposed breaking up Facebook and requiring Facebook to submit mandatory disclosures.

Although Facebook’s effect on democracy was of primary concern to the panelists, Balkin reminded the audience that there are other concerns when regulating social media, such as bodily security, connections to ethnic violence and genocide, privacy, consumer protection and manipulation.

“Although we have emphasized democracy as the primary thing we are worried about, there are more things at stake, and they have to do with the different reforms we might suggest,” Balkin said. “And the reason why is that most people just don’t talk about politics online. They talk about a lot of things but much of it is not politics.”

Facebook’s global impact was a concern for both the academic and activist panelists. Ninety percent of Facebook users are located outside of the United States and, although there has been change in the last several years, many countries still do not have laws regulating Facebook, according to Kaye. These laws are also difficult to implement in countries with authoritarian governments, according to Jain.

“I thought that Facebook was problematic in the United States; I had seen the effects of it,” Haugen said. “The version we see in the United States is the most sanitized, clean version of Facebook … I didn’t have an appreciation for the scale of how many people die from ethnic violence that’s fanned by choices that Facebook makes on the platform or Facebook’s choices to underinvest in security systems for people who don’t speak, say, English.”

Both panels considered reforming Facebook to be achievable. Zuboff, who has been studying various forms of social media for the past 43 years, has noticed a recent shift in attitudes towards regulating Facebook, especially after the legislative action that has taken place in the European Union.

“Events like this contribute not only to fine-tune ideas and discuss ideas but, of course, also to disseminate ideas and help create an environment in which these ideas can be put into practice,” said Nikolas Guggenberger, one of the panel’s moderators.

About 2,500 people registered for the Zoom webinar, which was also streamed live and recorded for other people to view.

ISABEL MANEY