Facebook is a trillion-dollar company owning many platforms ranging from Instagram to WhatsApp. Recently, they have been under scrutiny due to whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who secretly downloaded insider documents about the company and shared them with lawmakers. Frances found that Facebook’s algorithms push content that makes young girls specifically feel bad about themselves.
How Do Algorithms Work?
First of all, what are algorithms and how do they work? “Social media algorithms are a way of sorting posts in a users’ feed based on relevancy instead of publish time.” Facebook and all its platforms rely on how many likes, shares, and reposts its content receives. In other words, Facebook algorithms know which type of posts elicit a stronger reaction from the user. For example, if a user spends a longer amount of time looking at posts pertaining to cats, likes photos of cats, or even better, re-posts images of cats, Facebook then tends to show this type of catered content more frequently to that particular user.
The Evil Associated With Algorithms
Due to social media algorithms, Frances Haugen found that teen girls specifically see content that promotes low self-esteem on Facebook and its platforms. Photoshop; the ability to digitally alter an image, has become easily accessible to phone users and is being used more frequently to distort social media posts. Social media influencers and celebrities have utilized photoshop to create highly filtered or staged images that young girls may compare themselves to. We tend to see the same body type on social media: a thin waist and curvier shape that is so desired in the media today. The popular Instagram account, “Instagram Baddies,” like many others, is encouraging the media’s portrayal of this unattainable beauty standard. This profile, followed by thousands, often posts sexualized pictures of Instagram users in order for them to gain more followers. However, the people whose pictures they post are young women who are meant to represent a specific “standard” of beauty, and by that, I mean flat stomachs and large curves. Many users want to fit into this specific category, to be considered “beautiful” by the media’s standards because clearly, that is what’s considered to be attractive. Better yet, they too want their pictures to get posted on Instagram Baddies.
Unsurprisingly, according to a podcast by CBC news, Haugen found out that about 13.5% of girls said that Instagram worsens their suicidal thoughts, and 17% claimed that it contributes to their eating disorders. At the same time, they feel addicted to the platform and as a result, feel that they cannot just stop using it. Even if they do stop, they claim they feel isolated because everyone around them still uses the platform.
What’s worse, the CBC podcast affirms, is that Haugen states that Facebook knows about these harms but hid this research and lied to the public, because it wanted to maintain the profits that are generated from this type of user engagement. 98% of Facebook’s revenue in 2020 came from advertising, as companies give money to the platform to promote their content. If an advertisement on Facebook promotes weight loss or beauty supplements, whether that be a clothing company or a food supplements one, users who feel poorly about themselves are more likely to purchase that product. Facebook gains profit off of users’ insecurities. Additionally, if Facebook were to change its algorithms, users may not use the site as often which means that it will lose revenue.
The Good Associated With Algorithms
Facebook platforms are not all bad. In fact, there increasingly seems to be more profiles related to body positivity on social media which include images and content with women from different backgrounds and body shapes, meant to promote body acceptance and self-love. A study has also come to the surface which shows that short encounters with content relating to body positivity made the user feel happier in their own body and had an improvement in their mood. In 2019, the hashtag #bodypositive on Instagram had over 6,064,145 posts which included larger women posting images that showed off their bodies with captions like “it’s possible to love your belly rolls, it’s possible to have a favourite spot of cellulite.” Celebrities like Lizzo or Ashley Graham also have a large following on Instagram and are huge influencers in promoting body positivity. These celebrities embrace their curves and present a different body type that is separate from the media’s thin ideal. Thus, this shows users that they do not have to be thin to be confident or beautiful.
Another trend with over 170 thousand posts and whose popularity continues to increase is the “Instagram vs reality” comparison in which women show what they look like on social media (whether they are using strategic poses or using various filters) compared to what they look like in reality. This trend allows users to see that social media is not real and that they should stop comparing themselves through the unrealistic expectations set online. Another study was done to show that these “Instagram vs reality” trends result in a decrease in body dissatisfaction amongst some users. Thus, these trends may have the potential to bolster body positivity for those who browse such content.
The more users engage with body-positive content, the more likely this same type of content will show up on their feed. Additionally, since this movement is gaining more and more popularity in recent times, it will increase the chance of body-positive content becoming the new ‘norm’ in the future. Being exposed to a diverse range of bodies can “normalize bodies in their natural state, and reveal the truth behind Instagram’s culture of ‘perfection’,’” and thus, change the way society thinks of beauty.
In conclusion, Frances Haugen suggests the solution to this controversy would be to change Facebook’s algorithms so they are not based merely upon user engagement. However, Facebook may not be inclined to do this as it might mean less user engagement with their platforms. What do you think, does Facebook deserve this much backlash, or is this backlash for the better?