Fidji SIMO, the former head of Facebook's app, spoke out in defense of the network during an interview at the WSJ Technology Live event today. The Instacart CEO was present to discuss her new role and vision for the future. She was also asked about the recent testimony of Facebook whistleblowers and the subsequent attention.
Simo stated that she understands the criticisms of Facebook's impact on peoples' lives. Simo is concerned that Facebook won't be able to address its critics adequately at this stage, given the complex issues Facebook is dealing with as the largest social network in the world.
They spend billions of dollars to keep people safe. She said that they are conducting the most thorough research of any company I have seen to understand their impact. This is despite her recent departure from Facebook. She said that while people may want to know the answer, they are not able to understand these complex questions without a lot more nuance.
Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, claimed that Facebook's decision to prioritize user engagement via its algorithms was ultimately about putting profit over people. Simo however cautioned that the choices were not as simple as they have been presented. She said that it wasn't as simple as turning a dial to make problems disappear. Facebook is fundamentally a reflection on humanity.
Simo stated that Facebook's real problems were in how each Facebook change can have important societal applications. It must work out how to improve on the areas that are potentially problematic without affecting other aspects.
She noted that trade-offs are usually made between two types of social impacts when we talk about trade-offs.
Simo took an example and made what seemed like a simple adjustment: Simo determined which posts made Facebook users mad, then showed people less of them.
Haugen testified that Facebook's algorithms were designed to reward engagement. This means that posts with likes, comments and interactions are more popular and distributed higher in the News Feeds. She also stated that engagement does not come only from positive reactions and likes. Clickbait and posts that cause anger will be prioritized by engagement-based algorithms. This can lead to stronger reactions like misinformation and even violent posts.
Simo said that it's not as easy as it seems to reduce anger on Facebook. This would have a different type of social impact.
When you start digging deeper, you discover that anger is the root of many of the most important societal movements. The company began to wonder how it could affect people's activism.
According to a report from the WSJ, this is not how it turned out. Instead, publishers and political parties shifted their posts towards outrage and sensationalism after the algorithm was modified to favor personal posts over professionally produced content. The report stated that Zuckerberg rejected some of the suggested solutions to this problem.
Simo spoke of the anger problem as an example. There is always a compromise that will allow for another type of social impact on any issue. As someone who has been in these rooms for many years, I can assure you that it was never about whether we are doing the right things for society or for Facebook profits. The debate was between different types of societal impact, which is very difficult to have as a private company.
She added that this was the reason Facebook needed regulations.
Facebook has called for regulation in this area for years. They don't want to decide which implications, which consequences, and which trade-offs between different types of societal impacts. She said that governments are better placed to do this.
Simo's departure from Facebook was not attributed to any of the internal Facebook research that showed that it knew there were certain areas in its business that had a negative impact on society.
She said that she was not learning as much after 10 year's with the company. Instacart offered her a unique opportunity to learn new things.