Instagram and Facebook to introduce new features to limit teen addiction

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Facebook and Instagram will launch new features aimed at reducing social media addiction and misinformation after allegations the company’s algorithms fail to adequately protect teenagers online.

Facebook’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg has promised Instagram will soon encourage teenagers to “take a break” from its social media platform Instagram. Mr Clegg also said teenagers on Facebook will be “nudged” away from material that “may not be conducive to their wellbeing,” but did not go into specifics. The former British deputy prime minister told CNN the platforms algorithms should be “held to account,” through scrutiny and regulation.

Facebook executive Nick Clegg said Facebook and Instagram will introduce new features to limit social media addiction and misinformation after a Senate committee heard whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony that Facebook allowed a proliferation of hate speech and unchecked information.

Australia’s tech industry association DIGI will establish an independent board to police a voluntary code for misinformation and disinformation it launched in February at the request of the government. DIGI members Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and viral video site TikTok have all signed up to the code, which requires tech companies to tell users what measures they have in place to stop the spread of misinformation on their services and provide annual ‘transparency’ reports detailing their efforts.

In a US Senate hearing two weeks ago, Facebook’s failure to meet public commitments was exposed again, when new research revealed it had not stopped targeting teenagers with ads for weight loss products. The company’s internal research found that teenage girls struggling with body image found Instagram use amplified the problem. However, the company has fought back at assertions by The Wall Street Journal who cited the research to assert that Instagram is “toxic” for teenage girls. In September, the platform announced it would pause building Instagram Kids, an extension of the social media platform aimed at those under the age of 13.

In May, Reset Australia and the Tech Transparency Project showed Facebook failed to prevent ads for alcohol, drugs, and extreme weight loss to target teenagers through six ad experiments.

A Facebook company spokesperson said the company prohibited restricted topics, products and services to minors and that advertisers are required to follow the rules,“We’re investigating why some of these ads were approved to run. We prohibit ads about alcohol, weight loss products, and other restricted topics from being shown to people under the age of 18, and we have age restriction tools so that business can better control who sees their content.”

In September, Reset Australia and the TTP ran the tests again by submitting the same set of six ads aimed at those aged between 13-17 promoting pill abuse, alcohol, anorexia, smoking, dating and gambling to Facebook for approval. All were approved.

The director of technology policy at Reset Australia Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran said on Monday the new governance arrangements by DIGI were ‘laughable’ because abiding by the code will not be enforced and that big technology companies will continue to pose “fundamental threats to democracy.”

“As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said last week: ‘until incentives change at Facebook, we should not expect Facebook to change’. The incentives have not changed. DIGI has pulled together some great minds for their proposed board, but their ability to affect meaningful reform will not be realised without proper regulation,” Ms Sooriyakumaran said.

Critics say the plan lacks details and they are sceptical that the new features would be effective.

Critics say the plan lacks details and they are sceptical that the new features would be effective.Credit:iStock

“DIGI’s code is not much more than a PR stunt given the negative PR surrounding Facebook in recent weeks. If DIGI are serious about cracking down on the serious harms posed by misinformation and polarisation then it should join Reset Australia and other civil society groups globally in calling for proper regulation. We need answers to questions like, how do Facebook’s algorithms rank content? Why are Facebook’s AI-based content moderation systems so ineffective? The proposed reforms to the code do not provide this.”

Minderoo’s Frontier Tech Initiative, which is funded by local billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, commissioned and funded research earlier this year that focused on Facebook’s monetisation of young people’s personal data. As a result of the work, Facebook announced that it and Instagram would ban targeting inappropriate ads for young people.

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