April 13, 2024

Tim Kendall, Facebook’s first Director of Monetization, said the company had taken a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook.

The Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce is looking at the role of social media in “Mainstreaming Extremism: Social Media’s Role in Radicalizing America.” Kendall is testifying based on his role as Director of Monetization from 2006 through 2010, giving him a unique insight into the inner workings of the company.

The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity,” said Kendall. “At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.

He then goes on to highlight the methods Facebook used, essentially taking a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook in an effort to make their product more addictive.

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

Tobacco companies added ammonia to cigarettes to increase the speed with which nicotine traveled to the brain. Extreme, incendiary content—think shocking images, graphic videos, and headlines that incite outrage—sowed tribalism and division. And this result has been unprecedented engagement — and profits.

Needless to say, Kendall’s testimony is likely to give weight to officials concerns about the role the platform has played in societal problems. Explaining Kendal’s testimony may become the biggest challenge for Facebook executives.