Facebook meta-algorithms harm children by spreading toxic content

A new report reveals how easy it is to prove that “meta” business logic intentionally harms children

“One of the things that struck me was how easy it was to identify this pro-eating disorder bubble,” said Rys Farthing, director of data policy at the advocacy group. Reset Australia and Head of Research.

Farthing said the content exposure was driven primarily by Instagram’s suggestions of which users to follow. Test accounts that expressed an interest in weight loss or eating disorders were quickly inundated with recommendations from the platform to follow other users with those interests, including those who openly promote eating disorders.

The most revealing part is twofold. First, Facebook is trying to undermine trust in journalists, as I’ve written about here before. Their official response quoted in the article is that journalists do not understand what it really is to want to profit from harming children.

Second, the researcher is actually saying the exact opposite: he is going bankrupt.

For years researchers, journalists and activists have been sounding the alarm about disorderly food content on Instagram, culminating in the fall of 2021 when internal Facebook documents provided by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed that Instagram led teenage girls to feel worse about themselves. This new report shows that Meta’s struggles to limit this type of harm are still ongoing.

But Farthing and others hope change is imminent: US Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn recently introduced the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to “act in the best interests of a minor” when using their services. The California legislature is considering a similar provision, inspired by the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code, which would require companies to consider the “best interests” of children when creating or modifying their algorithms.

“If we can muster the courage to hold tech companies to account, we could push some of this legislation through,” Farthing said. “And maybe when we have this conversation next year, I might have filed for bankruptcy.”

Think carefully about this contrast in the integrity of work.

Sharon D. Cole