The overarching takeaway from the Facebook Papers is that Facebook knows. The company monitors just about everything, as the whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed by providing 17 news organizations with documents about the social-media company’s internal research and discussions. Facebook and its tech-industry peers employ armies of exceptional research scientists who evaluate how the platform shapes social behavior. Those researchers agree to a Faustian bargain—in exchange for limitless data, they sign nondisclosure agreements. And as the Facebook Papers document, these employees have discovered a range of disturbing problems that, if not for Haugen, might never have become publicly known. Even when employees of Facebook (which officially renamed itself Meta on Thursday) have privately objected to the company’s decisions to put profit over public safety, they’ve in many cases been overruled by Mark Zuckerberg and other executives.
If Facebook employees continue to be the only ones who can monitor Facebook, neither they nor anyone else can make sufficient progress in understanding how toxic content thrives on social-media platforms, how it leads to human suffering, and how best to diminish that suffering. Facebook and other social-media giants have amassed enormous power over the global flow of information: Facebook alone censors millions of posts every day, more human communication than any government ever has. The decisions that their employees and their algorithms make about what to amplify and what to suppress end up affecting people’s well-being. Yet the companies are essentially black boxes—entities whose inner workings are virtually unknowable to people on the outside.
Particularly in the absence of outside oversight, private companies cannot be expected to work in the public interest. It is neither their purpose nor their role. That’s why independent researchers at news organizations, universities, and civil-society groups need to be permitted to pursue and gather knowledge on behalf of the public. Compelling that access and protecting it by law is essential to holding internet platforms accountable.