Facebook. You’ve heard of it, right? It’s the social networking site that, since 2005, has become so widespread and popular, we can’t even imagine life without it. Considering it’s been on the market for fifteen years, Facebook’s interface certainly hasn’t improved in line with its explosive popularity – mostly because it hasn’t needed to. Facebook’s appeal lies not in the way it looks, or performs, but rather, in how it makes you feel. It is systematically designed to be addictive, to administer micro-doses of feel-good neurotransmitters every time someone likes or comments on something that you’ve posted. Human beings are complex creatures, but our brain reward centres operate very simply. When the brain gets a drop of dopamine, it enjoys it very much and wants more. Facebook knows this and its programmers have learned to manipulate the interface, in order to take advantage of that. Why? The longer we spend on the site, the more advertising we are exposed to, the more money goes rolling into Facebook’s coffers. It really is as simple as that. But that’s just the beginning.
We all know about FB’s sketchy privacy practices. On a global scale we seem to enjoy Facebook enough to ignore the fact that so much of our personal data is shared with big corporations. Perhaps we feel it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of staying connected to so many other people, so easily. Or maybe we just aren’t aware of exactly how much we are giving away. Did you know that Facebook allowed huge companies like Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada complete access to your private messages? Not just the ability to read them, but also to write and delete them!!!! WTAF?! The first you heard about your data being used in such a shitty way was probably when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. Suddenly there was an outrage. For a while. And then it all died down and it was back to business as usual in Menlo Park. Facebook continues to act behind closed doors and to avoid anything more than a mere semblance of transparency. And that’s before we even start talking about the fake news.
In 2016 FB discovered millions of false pages that may have contributed to Trump’s shock win at the election. Seemingly genuine pages that were peddling outright lies. “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump.” “Someone was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton.” “Bill Clinton raped a 13 year old girl.” None of these stories are true but they spread like wildfire because FB’s algorithm favours stories with high engagement. And nothing engages people more than sensationalist bullshit. The most commonly shared news content on Facebook today is from Fox News and other right leaning outlets, such as Breitbart. Not exactly paragons of journalistic truth. But it actually benefits FB to spread misinformation and lies. They are not invested in the truth, and they keep trying to wash their hands of any responsibility when it comes to the veracity of content posted on their site.
Despite that, occasionally they are compelled into increased accountability. Only as recently as last year, FB pledged to eliminate white nationalist/supremacist pages from their site. They didn’t particularly want to, as doing so goes against their “freedom of speech” ethos, but public and government pressure forced their hand. But, because they are an unregulated beast, several nationalist, alt-right, white supremacy groups still hold court on Facebook, untouched. Only when specific complaints about a particular page become public does Facebook bother to take any action. Otherwise these hate-spouting organisations are allowed to operate unchecked. In addition, these extremist groups are permitted to magnify their exposure on FB through means that are in violation of FB’s own rules, i.e. inauthentic coordinated behavior (using multiple pages to promote the same content in order to increase readership). If I did that, I would be banned.
In its purported claims to be seen as unbiased and non-partisan, FB has been forced to partner with a number of third-party fact-checking organisations. Last year they came under fire for taking on a partnership with a company that is a subsidiary of the right-wing, white-nationalist publication Daily Caller. Not exactly unbiased. These fact-checkers have a huge influence on which news articles are seen (and not seen) by Facebook users, and considering that more than half of Americans now use social media as their primary news source, it means that these “fact-checkers” wield a huge amount of power. So why would FB give a far-right group the job of checking facts on its site? The answer seems to be that they want to suck up to the Republicans, and in particular they want to suck up to Trump. When Democrats, like Elizabeth Warren, campaign on a promise of breaking up and regulating Facebook, it’s easy to see why the behemoth social media platform would favour the incumbent president and party. So much so that they are prepared to bend democracy to their will in order to insure Trump stays in power. They have $556 billion dollars riding on it.
Following the 2016 election, FB started openly pandering to the Trump administration, crumbling under the president’s online whining about how he was being unfairly treated on the site. But the slide from left to right had started much earlier. Months before the election, FB actually discovered evidence that Russians were acting to influence the result (in Trump’s favour). They kept that information to themselves, and did nothing to prevent Russia’s continued interference. And Facebook continues to staunchly defend their policy of allowing proven false information to be included in political ads, with Zuckerberg defending that stance, “The ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy world-wide”. Nice soundbite Mark, but allowing absolute bullshit “news” articles to circulate on Facebook under the guise of fact, is actually harmful to democracy. I cannot stress enough how dangerous this is to the very fabric of our society.
Zuckerberg justifies the lack of editorial oversight, “We think our users can make up their own minds”. But then he pays researchers to see if he can make up their minds for them. In 2012, FB conducted an ethically dodgy study in which they manipulated their user’s feeds to see what effect that would have on their moods – without ever asking their explicit permission to do so. Some people’s feeds showed them happy, positive words, photos and news stories for a week, and at the end of that time FB’s researchers would assess whether that person was posting noticeably more positive things themselves (they usually were). But you know what else Facebook did? Some users’ feeds were showered with content that was sad, or angry or negative in order to gauge if that also had the same knock-on effect. And it did, resulting in those users generally posting downbeat status updates. And that’s fucked up. They didn’t ask any of the users their permission to take part in the study. They didn’t ask anyone if they were interested in having their moods manhandled, in such a creepy way. They just went ahead and did it. To 689,003 people. Were you one of them? You will never know.
It’s FB’s ability to manipulate and control its users that makes them so powerful. It’s the almost total lack of oversight that makes them scary. They’ve already demonstrated that they can (and will) control their user’s emotions and moods through deceptive means. Their privacy terms and conditions allow for it, so it’s not illegal. But try telling me it’s not wrong.
When I joined FB thirteen years ago, I did so because I thought it was a cool way to connect with my friends. By 2016, I had started becoming fairly disillusioned with the platform, but still felt that, being an expat, it was the best way to keep in touch with my loved ones back home. I stayed, despite FB’s insane growth and metamorphosis into something other than it was pretending to be. I can no longer ignore what it has become, and because of that, I can no longer continue to use it. It is my view that Facebook has become nothing less than a deadly weapon. I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that it has transformed from an ivy league rich kid’s club into an insidious monster of mind-control on a mass scale. Am I impervious to the tactics employed? Are you? How do we know? Maybe we are smart enough to stay neutral and unaffected. But what about the other 2.4 billion monthly users? That’s almost a third of the earth’s population, and you can bet that a huge chunk of them are easy targets, particularly in third world countries where Facebook isn’t just an online application, but the internet itself.
And it’s not just FB manipulating its own users. Other times it’s third party actors. Governments. Usually with nefarious intentions. For instance, in 2018 it was discovered that a coordinated social media attack designed to incite violence and hatred against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority group had been perpetrated by that country’s own military. The United Nations found that the five year campaign of false propaganda saw the Myanmar government use Facebook as a tool for genocide and ethnic cleansing. And because of Facebook’s manifesto that “free speech” is the cornerstone of democracy, they felt justified in allowing that to happen. That is not OK. Really, it’s not OK. It’s fucking awful and I can no longer allow myself to passively be part of it. I am a little nervous about completely deleting my account, but I’m still going to do it, and I know I’ll find a way to live without it. In fact, a Stanford study found that: “The downsides are real. The negative effects of Facebook are large enough to be of real concerns. Four weeks without Facebook improves subjective well-being.”
I think I’m going to be just fine.
Some more reading…
The New York Times – As Facebook Raised a Privacy Wall, It Carved an Opening for Tech Giants
The Guardian – White Nationalists are Openly Operating on Facebook. The Company Won’t Act
Popular Information – Facebook Allows Prominent Right-Wing Website to Break the Rules
Popular Information – The Republican Political Operatives Who Call the Shots at Facebook
The New York Times – A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military
Salon – A “Gold Standard” Study Finds Deleting Facebook is Great for Your Mental Health