Members of Facebook’s so-called Oversight Board, which includes the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, are resisting pressure to resign as the company battles allegations from a whistleblower that it put the mental health of young people at risk.
The independent board – which was set up by Facebook in 2018 to rule on controversial decisions – has been accused of providing PR cover to the social media company rather than offering proper scrutiny.
Facebook is seeking to fight off claims made by Frances Haugen, a former employee, that the business’s own research showed it was having a toxic effect on users’ mental health.
Damian Collins, the Conservative chairman of a parliamentary committee on online safety, said Oversight Board members should quit.
But a spokesman for the body hit back at Mr Collins, saying he had criticised it out of a "need to appear relevant".
The board is made up of 20 academics, intellectuals and journalists such as Mr Rusbridger, who was a supporter of whistleblowers during his two decades editing the Guardian. It reportedly pays its members a six-figure salary, and is meant to act as Facebook’s supreme court.
However, the body’s power to demand information from Facebook has come into question during the leaks from Ms Haugen.
Frances Haugen turned over Facebook's internal company documents to US securities regulators
Credit: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
The leaked Facebook documents have revealed details about the social network’s internal workings, including research suggesting its Instagram services was harming teenagers’ mental health.
The leaks also revealed a secret system for reviewing high-profile accounts, such as those owned by Donald Trump and the Brazilian football star Neymar, which Facebook had failed to present to the Oversight Board.
The board suggested that Facebook may not have been “fully forthcoming” with it, and is set to present findings on the matter later this month.
Mr Collins said the board was effectively powerless to regulate many of the issues facing the company.
He said: “The Oversight Board has no right to have access to the research documents that Frances Haugen has published. Facebook’s decisions to favour engagement over protecting users from harm is something that they are not allowed to investigate.
“The Oversight board was a PR exercise by Facebook and the people who are on it should not have allowed their good names to be used in this way.”
In response, Dex Hunter-Torricke, the board’s head of communications, said: “Since the Oversight Board issued its first decisions in January we’ve been working to shine a light on Facebook’s opaque rules and demand the company treat users fairly.
“We understand Damian Collins’ need to appear relevant by criticising us, but invite him to learn more about the 17 decisions and more than 75 recommendations we’ve issued.”
The board is due to issue a transparency report later this month that is expected to address whether Facebook was forthcoming with relevant information.
After Ms Haugen, the former employee-turned-whistleblower behind the leaked documents, testified to US senators on Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence over the scandal.
Facebook’s chief executive said that claims the company puts profit over safety were “just not true”.
Facebook’s failing fight to remain youths’ favourite app
Facebook may have started life as the go-to social network for students, but for almost a decade it has struggled to brush off the nagging realisation it is losing the youth.
In 2013, then-chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted to investors that the website had seen a slight drop-off in daily usage amongst younger teenagers.
It was the first sign that, among the most tech-savvy and choosy demographic, Facebook may have crested. For years it had been their favourite destination to mingle with friends and strangers online.
Shareholders panicked, knocking billions off the company’s value.
Since then, Facebook has gone to great lengths to prevent any perceptions of a decline among its youngest constituents, even as its global user base has grown relentlessly – and despite questions over the impact its services have on their mental health.
The tech giant has turned to buying up rival apps used by teenagers such as Instagram and, where it has been unable to, overtly copied their features. The company forged ahead despite its own research suggesting that 30pc of teen girls felt Instagram made dissatisfaction with their body worse, according to leaked documents.
How facebook users comopare to other social media companies
It has carried out extensive research on teenagers’ browsing habits, at one point paying them to track their internet activity, and has targeted even younger users to increase chances of more sign-ups. In 2017 it launched a version of its chat app Messenger for under-13s and, until recently, had been preparing to launch an equivalent version of Instagram.
But questions about Facebook’s fragile position when it comes to teenagers have surfaced once again over the last few weeks as Frances Haugen, a former product manager at the Silicon Valley giant, releases years of internal information.
In whistleblower documents filed with American regulators, Ms Haugen alleged that teenage usage of Facebook peaked between 2012 and 2013, and was forecast to plummet over the next two years. She also claimed the company failed to disclose to advertisers that it had double-counted millions of young users who had duplicate accounts.
“For years, Facebook has misrepresented core metrics to investors and advertisers,” she claimed.
Facebook is used by 83pc of the UK’s social media users, according to figures from Ofcom, but there are significant age differences within that. More than nine in 10 users over 65 have Facebook, while less than seven in 10 of 16 to 24-year-olds do. That drops to 54pc among 12 to 15-year-olds.
Social media users by age
Considering its near-ubiquity among younger users a decade ago, the figures are a stark illustration of how quickly social networks can fall out of favour.
Instagram, however, is faring much better, with its image-based focus wildly popular among younger users. Some 78pc of 16 to 24-year-olds use Instagram, according to Ofcom, more than any other social media app.
“Facebook would be in a much worse position from a demographic standpoint if they didn’t have Instagram,” says Joseph Evans of Enders Analysis.
However, unlike Facebook’s dominance among baby boomers, Instagram is locked in constant competition. Usage of Snapchat and YouTube among younger users are almost as high, with TikTok rising, suggesting that Instagram only enjoys partial attention from younger users.
“Even if you’re a teenager, there’s still limited time. And every minute you spend on TikTok or playing Fortnite is a minute that you’re not on Facebook or on Instagram,” says Evans.
Top social media apps by age and gender
Despite its strong position, Instagram’s paranoia is evident. In 2016, after being repeatedly rebuffed in efforts to buy Snapchat, Mark Zuckerberg ordered staff at Instagram to clone Stories, its disappearing photos feature.
His demand is believed to have been among the reasons behind the departure of Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger two years later.
Last year, it did the same with TikTok, launching a similar short-form video format called Reels. The former effort has been successful, the jury is out on the latter.
Over the years, Facebook has also launched a host of teen-focused apps on the side. Few today will remember the likes of Hobbi, Lasso and Lifestage – even the Facebook employees who developed them.
Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen arrives to testify during a Senate Committee hearing on Capitol Hill
Credit: JABIN BOTSFORD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
What may now concern Zuckerberg is that internet users are getting younger. While Instagram ranks among the top five apps for 13 to 17-year-olds, younger internet users do have other options. YouTube, Roblox, Minecraft and TikTok are the favourite apps among under-13s, according to Ofcom.
Last week, Facebook announced it was suspending plans for its under-13s version named “Instagram Kids”. It came after whistleblower Haugen leaked executives’ internal discussions about pre-teens as a “valuable but untapped audience”.
Sonia Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics who studies children’s use of social media, says: “It’s probably been bad news for Facebook. Instagram for kids has gone so wrong. That pipeline model, of as children develop they move across your products, has surely got to be commercially attractive to them.”
Recent revelations about Instagram’s impact on teenagers’ mental health amounted to a “Big Tobacco moment” for Facebook, according to US senators this week. Its years-long battle to keep teenagers on board is only likely to get tougher.