With Facebook product manager Frances Haugen making headlines for uncovering harmful practices at her workplace this past week, many people are starting to ask more relevant questions regarding social media marketing and its capacity to influence users.

Ms. Haugen, the acknowledged whistleblower, claims she was compelled to hand over lengthy internal documents to both government officials and the Wall Street Journal earlier this year because she believed the company would not change on its own. She contends that whenever there were conflicts of interest pitting company profits against the common good that the public lost out. Nevertheless, the conversation Ms. Haugen started and the revelations about Facebook’s marketing tactics may change how we regulate social media marketing going forward.

Frances Haugen Seeks Change in Facebook User Engagement

Frances Haugen claims that her ultimate goal in releasing this trove of documents is to force Facebook to change their platform and its algorithm. While these tweaks would probably result in less engagement, lower advertising dollars, and consequently, less profit, Ms. Haugen’s goal is not to make Facebook unprofitable. On the contrary, she feels that a company that boasted profits of $29 billion in 2020 has plenty of margin to devote more resources to public safety. She wants Facebook to be more accountable for how they use social media to market to users, especially younger ones who can suffer real harm from social content.

Facebook’s Internal Research Highlights Problems

Facebook’s own research about the harms of youthful Instagram use was one of the most astonishing aspects of Ms. Haugen’s testimony before lawmakers. In essence, the reports showed that Facebook was well aware that its products cause real damage, particularly with respect to teenagers’ mental health. Nevertheless, it still has not made major improvement to their marketing strategy.  As recently as last March, Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress that using social media to connect with others has positive mental health benefits overall.

Mr. Zuckerberg, however, failed to mention parts of their research that showed that 13 percent of British teenage users and 6 percent of American teenage users who had suicidal thoughts attributed their wish to kill themselves to Instagram.

Ms. Haugen explained to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection that, “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” However, the underlying issue is that the social media company’s ad-based business model relies on keeping users on its platform for as long as possible. As a result, the company’s marketing strategy sometimes uses negative emotions to achieve its goals.

Metrics Call the Shots

One of the major complaints about social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram is that they feature posts with clickbait and extreme content which encourages users to interact and respond. And Facebook knows that this system of algorithmic-based rankings, or engagement-based rankings, keeps users on the site longer. Unfortunately, it also helps to spread misinformation and hate. Longer sessions and more regular visits, however, also lead to more ad revenue.

Although the company could make both Facebook and Instagram safer, Ms. Haugen contends that they don’t bother because profits are more important than people. At the end of the day, Facebook is a data-driven corporate environment, which seems to be the root of the problem. As a metrics-based organization, it allows those in charge to evade accountability. In a sense, metrics rather than people make the marketing decisions.

2nd Whistleblower Comes Forward

The negative press shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon at Facebook, however. Already, another individual has come forward offering information about the company’s reckless attitude toward spreading hate and misinformation in developing countries. Sophie Zhang, the second whistleblower, backs up Ms. Haugen’s claims that Facebook did not devote adequate resources to halt abuse of its platform in countries other than the United States. Because nearly 90% of Facebook’s active users reside outside of the U.S. and Canada, this represents a substantial majority.

How Do We Make Social Media Marketing Safer?

Ms. Zhang expressed hope because there now seems to be bipartisan support for more protections for children online in the wake of Ms. Haugen’s testimony to a Senate subcommittee last week. Yet questions persist over what steps companies should take to make social media marketing safer for users. Instead of breaking up Facebook, Ms. Haugen suggested drafting rules requiring social media companies to show content in the order it was posted and prompt users to read an article before posting it. She maintained that a chronological newsfeed instead of an algorithm that directs specific content to users should ameliorate many of these issues. Facebook, for its part, has said that it has changed its algorithms to reduce the dissemination of hate speech and misinformation.

Unfortunately, even in the face of bipartisan support in Congress for everything from algorithm adjustments to a wholesale breakup of Facebook, there still seems to be little agreement about what type of legislation can move forward. Ms. Haugen added that Congress could require Facebook to release its internal research and set up an independent oversight group composed of former tech workers with a firm grasp of these issues.

While these ideas definitely have merit, there must be a significant change in the way these companies market via social media and the lengths they are willing to go to engage their audiences before they can repair the harm they’ve caused and regain peoples’ trust.