Smoke & Mirrors
Leaders need to act in accordance with their values
“The truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius
The camera ought to be listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
More than the awe-inspiring Great Wall or the mysterious Machu Picchu, cameras have allowed us to capture and easily manipulate the world around us.
As early as 1855 in Paris, at the second world fair, a German photographer demonstrated his ability to retouch the negative of a photograph, thus producing a more desired effect.
This harmless action has evolved into the now-familiar editing features we see in the photo apps on our phones. What was once the capturing of unflinching truth is now subject to our whims and moods.
Susan Sontag observed, “Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.”
That could almost be the mission statement for Instagram — and of its parent company, Facebook, while we’re at it.
In a devastating investigation, The Wall Street Journal uncovered the truth behind Instagram (“Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show”). But this goes deeper than the typical head-in-the-sand approach that companies like Facebook have taken.
In this case, it wasn’t third-party research the company chose to ignore. It was the company’s own research.
For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
The research has been reviewed by top Facebook executives, and was cited in a 2020 presentation given to Mr. Zuckerberg, according to the documents.
When Mark Zuckerberg appeared in front of Congress in March 2021 and was asked specifically if Facebook had studied the effect of Instagram on children, he admitted that the company had.
In August, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn in a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg called on him to release Facebook’s internal research on the impact of its platforms on youth mental health.
In response, Facebook sent the senators a six-page letter that didn’t include the company’s own studies. Instead, Facebook said there are many challenges with conducting research in this space, saying, “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is ‘too much,’ ” according to a copy of the letter reviewed by the Journal.
In public, Facebook has consistently played down the app’s negative effects on teens, and hasn’t made its research public or available to academics or lawmakers who have asked for it.
“The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” CEO Mark Zuckerburg said at a congressional hearing in March 2021 when asked about children and mental health.
For the full coverage from the WSJ, see our follow-up piece, with links to read the entire series:
In another instance with a media executive, Rep. Heather Wilson excoriated CBS president and CEO Mel Karmazin in a hearing on Broadcast Decency Rules in 2004, saying, “You knew what you were doing…because it improved your ratings, it improved your market share, and it lined your pockets.”
Using intentional deception to achieve a desired outcome is nothing new; we’re warned of it in the very first book of the Bible, as Eve is deceived by the serpent. It is one of God’s commandments handed down to Moses.
It is deeply and inextricably woven into human nature.
“Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find somebody ready to be deceived.” — Niccolò Machiavelli, 1513
We’ve seen Facebook’s tactics before. And since Scott Galloway called Facebook leadership “a lipstick on cancer,” it shouldn’t shock you that the tobacco industry first used them.
The experts Philip Morris hired work for firms whose scientists regularly contend in medical journals, courtrooms, and regulatory arenas that their clients’ chemical products pose little or no health risks to the public. The firms have been instrumental in delaying new regulations by criticizing the work of other scientists, and emphasizing the doubt inherent in health science. The resultant uncertainty has helped delay attempts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on ubiquitous chemicals with known dangers, such as formaldehyde, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium. 1
This aversion to admitting the truth behind scientific studies spans back to the early 1950s, when research linked smoking to lung cancer. The tobacco companies’ response? A secret meeting at the New York Plaza on December 14, 1953 to develop a strategy to twist science and mislead the public about the dangers of smoking.
In 1964, the Surgeon General released a report of thousands of articles and began requiring cigarette companies to post the Surgeon General’s Warning on every pack of cigarettes.
The tobacco companies knew of the harm of cigarettes, but they would continue to deny that cigarettes cause cancer for another 35 years, instead relying on filters, low-tar cigarettes, and other innovations that would continue to allow them to rake in the profits.
In 1999, the United States Department of Justice sued a number of tobacco companies for fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act. Judge Gladys Kessler found that the companies intentionally misled the public about the health risks, nicotine addictiveness, and selling to youths.
She took a full year to write the 1,652 page opinion of United States of America v. Philip Morris USA, and it was damning.
“In short, [the companies] have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
How is Facebook any different?
Every blue-blooded socialist and every red-blooded capitalist will admit that company executives are responsible for and obsess over profits. There’s nothing inherently wrong with profitability.
But leaders have the well-being of society to consider as well. Is your product or company doing more harm than good? Do your actions reflect your values?
If you’re pursuing profits at the expense of your values or the values of a decent society, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Premium subscribers can get the audio version of this essay here:
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.