Has social media reached its Big Tobacco moment? – Jaspreet Bindra

(Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University. This column first appeared in Mint on October 15, 2021)

  • The two most profitable businesses of the 20th century were oil and tobacco. Big Oil created the largest companies, shaped geopolitics and even fostered wars. Big Tobacco minted profits out of an addiction, shaped culture and made it ‘cool’ for youngsters to smoke. The tobacco majors knew that nicotine was addictive; their internal research showed that it could cause diseases far worse than mere addiction. Brazenly, they took out full page ads claiming that smoking was not a proven cause for cancer, even as they funded their own research with favourable outcomes. They created products targeted at women (Virginia Slims’ “You have come a long way, baby”) and took aim at the young with tobacco’s coolness quotient. “They knew that if they could get children addicted early, they’d have a customer for life,” says Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican. Their world started unravelling when an internal ‘enemy’ emerged—a whistle-blower from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp who revealed to outsiders what the industry always knew: Smoking was addictive and could kill. Now if all this is familiar, it is probably because you have been reading about Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, who has claimed that the company failed to act on internal research showing that Instagram was damaging teenagers’ mental health, and that it chooses “profits over safety”. Facebook tweaked its News Feed, a product that almost two billion people see every day, to make it more attractive to advertisers, but also amplify ‘divisive content’. Inflammatory content directly contributed to repression in Myanmar, killings in Sri Lanka and India, and likely aided the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol. Predictably, Facebook came out swinging. Mark Zuckerberg said Haugen’s testimony “was illogical and just not true”…

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