Ethics in Tech: Social Media



Graphic of connected user icons with blue haze

Kathy Pham, CS 07, MS CS 09, a Fellow and Faculty Member at Harvard and the Lead of Mozilla’s Responsible Computer Science Challenge

The people living in Myanmar may have limited internet access, but they do have Facebook. In 2017, hateful anti-Muslim content was posted on the social media platform before and after state-led violence displaced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims. Facebook was later taken to task for being slow to mitigate the situation.

According to Kathy Pham, CS 07, MS CS 09, a fellow and faculty member at Harvard and the lead of Mozilla’s Responsible Computer Science Challenge, this scenario is a perfect example of a technology platform not fully understanding the community where they launched their product.

“They didn’t know that, for many people in Myanmar, Facebook is their main news source,” Pham says. “When we build technology, we have to make sure we understand the social human part and not just the tech part. We have to ask questions: How do people share information and communicate? How might our products negatively affect communities?”

For a long time, technology has ignored these questions, and developers don’t often think of building platforms as an interdisciplinary field. But Pham says it’s naive to disregard topics like social sciences, politics, policy, and even history when building technology. Because these platforms are now so ubiquitous, developers have the responsibility to bring people in the room who can help answer those questions. But what about removing or blocking content? Does that cross a line?

“Multi-billion-dollar companies with some of the smartest people around the world still haven’t solved this question. Only this year are we seeing companies take a stand about what they see as inappropriate content.”

Pham says there’s no perfect guidebook, but individual platforms must create their own set of values. “Social media platforms can be a place where racism spreads but can also be a place which highlights police brutality that people have never seen before—it can be both at the same time. A company has to figure out where it stands, and when something becomes too much. The moment the team is in crisis mode and debating, that’s a really hard environment to be in.”