Facebook: the monster destroying civilization

First it was Facebook as an addictive time sink; substituting for life in the actual world; even ruining marriages. But all that was in a more innocent time. Now there are bigger issues.

PBS’s Frontline recently ran an eye-popping two-part report on Facebook. The mantra of Facebook and its creator/boss Mark Zuckerberg is “open and connected.” It’s the idealism of improving the world by bringing people together and empowering them. The 2011 Egyptian revolution was organized largely via Facebook.

But Facebook, as Reinhold Niebuhr said of religion, is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. And while most people are good, unfortunately not all are. Containing bad people’s badness is civilization’s age-old problem. Bad people have had a field day exploiting Facebook’s idealistic concept for their own malign purposes, and Facebook has failed abysmally in dealing with this.

Facebook makes its money by using its algorithms to target ads to people likely to be receptive. The Russians utilized this to subvert the 2016 election (with the connivance if not collusion of the Trump campaign); a well-financed and well-organized attack on America and its democracy by the Internet Research Agency operating under the Kremlin’s aegis. The IRA launched a tsunami of Facebook ads. But it did much more, also flooding Facebook with trolls pretending to be Americans posting content, including establishment of innumerable Facebook groups that attracted millions of followers.

And the Kremlin’s aim was not only Trump’s election (which they didn’t actually expect) but, more broadly, to undermine American society itself by sowing division. They did this through content advocating both sides of hot-button issues, like abortion, immigration, and guns — made as extremist as possible, to enflame partisanship and get Americans to hate one another. (Seems it was pretty successful.)

While all this was happening during 2016 — and happening massively— Facebook’s management was oblivious. Literally unaware how its platform was being so horrendously abused. Only afterward, once the stench finally reached their nostrils, did they start to investigate. And Facebook was shocked, shocked, to discover what had happened.

But things didn’t really blow up in Facebook’s face till the Cambridge Analytica story broke. Cambridge’s business is targeting people with content (not necessarily truthful) that will sway their opinions. Facebook had always sworn to protect users’ privacy and personal information, but sold some to Cambridge, and their controls proved to be so lax that Cambridge winkled out the data for many millions more.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Frontline also showed how Facebook is used to whip up ethnic hatreds and violence in Myanmar, and “weaponized” by backers of Philippine President Duterte to crush critics of his policy of dealing with drugs by murdering thousands. These are just examples of a global problem.

Part of it is that people aren’t mis-using Facebook just to promote political or social agendas. They do it for money. Creating “click bait” content that attracts a lot of eyeballs enables one to sell ads (on top of those Facebook itself sells). I heard a radio interview with one guy who unashamedly told how he’d made thousands by concocting a fake “report” about Hillary vote fraud.

Frontline interviewed a bunch of top Facebook people about all this. Every one sounded downright lame. All acknowledged that Facebook was “slow” to address these problems, but were vague about remedies. The problems at issue don’t much affect Facebook’s profitability; whereas quashing them might.

One thing Facebook is doing pro-actively, though, is trying to dig up dirt to smear its critics.

Zuckerberg appeared frequently in Frontline’s report. He came across as a dewy-eyed robotic snowflake totally out of his depth. Never appreciating the magnitude and seriousness of what’s at issue.

Facebook has always insisted it is a technology company, not a media or content company. And there is a principle, enshrined in legislation, exempting internet platforms from liability for stuff other people put up on them.

But not so fast. Facebook’s “News Feed” has become its most prominent feature. For a vast number of people, it is their primary (if not sole) source of news. Fine and dandy if it’s news like Walter Cronkhite used to broadcast. But this is totally different. This too is governed by algorithms tailored to showing users stuff they are most apt to like and respond to —whether true or not. (The purpose again is selling ads.)

The traditional role of a news purveyor is to exercise editorial responsibility. Recognizing that recipients of their product have an interest in getting accurate news; and, indeed, that this is vital for a society, especially a democratic one. But Facebook exercises no editorial responsibility whatsoever. Doesn’t even recognize that the concept applies to them.

This might not be terrible if Facebook were just another news outlet. But Facebook is now by far the world’s biggest disseminator of “news.” It has a stranglehold monopoly in the “social network” sphere, becoming indeed an integral part of the very fabric of life, throughout the globe. This gives Facebook truly immense power. But it refuses to shoulder any real responsibility.

Zuckerberg on Frontline said he assumes Facebook users are not so naive as to believe everything they see there. How naive is he to believe that? On what planet does he live?

If you’re a bad guy and you throw something up on the web that’s outrageously false but incendiary and calculated to push certain people’s buttons, that’s exactly what it will do, thanks to Facebook, whose algorithms will give it “News Feed” prominence for precisely that reason. Much more prominence than (unexciting) genuine news. It’s a form of Gresham’s law — bad (fake) news drives good (true) news out of circulation. In fact, many people today have less trust in traditional news sources. They refuse to believe CNN yet wallow in Facebook’s “News Feed” — which is really a crap feed.

This is insanity. No wonder we have the president we have.

What is the solution? It is long past time to hope that Zuckerberg and Facebook will suddenly wake up and (somehow) grasp the nettle. Meantime, while I am a believer in free market capitalism, Facebook is not just another standard type of business enterprise. It is, again, certainly a monopoly, and it’s in a class by itself, in terms of its immense societal role. This could be seen as an antitrust matter; but I don’t know that there’s an antitrust solution, along the lines of breaking up the company, that would make any sense.

My professional career was spent in the public regulation of monopoly utilities. The deal was that government would license them as monopolies, in exchange for their agreeing to being subject to regulation, including rate regulation. I would suggest designating Facebook a public utility. Rate regulation would be irrelevant here, but there needs to be regulation of how Facebook operates. At a minimum, the “News Feed” should be subjected to public oversight so that if it continues to exist at all, it must be limited to what is generally recognized as legitimate actual news.

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6 Responses to “Facebook: the monster destroying civilization”

  1. Lee Says:

    Unfortunately this might be a genie out of the bottle, cat out of the bag, insert other metaphor here 🙂 kind of situation. Even if Facebook imploded tomorrow, I think that the profit and political motives ensure that there will be a multitude of smaller copycats to step in; fake news sources will be everywhere — as they have been for the vast majority of human history, excepting a short period of time from the invention of radio through the invention of the Internet.

    So, I don’t see a solution. Excepting for that brief period of time, which has come to an end, I am not at all sure that the moral arc of the universe bends towards truth (or justice, etc.). I fear that we are (again) in an age where widely-believed statements have higher Darwinian fitness than true statements.

    I am hopeful that you can counter my seemingly rational pessimism with some rational optimism!

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    I think you are wrong that “fake news” has been ubiquitous in history. Only quite recently has the world learned how easy it is to create and spread.

  3. Lee Says:

    I agree that only recently has fake news spread so widely. However, I am arguing that prior to mass communication, people were dependent on their neighbors for news and those neighbors had political and profit motives. As a result, the truths that were accepted in one community could be substantially different from those in another community. For example, the civil war South thought they were morally justified in their stance — and if they are evaluated solely on the basis of the fake news that they were raised on then I can see why.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Southerners justified themselves morally on the basis of racial inferiority of blacks. We now know that’s false but at the time it was a generally accepted truth — not “fake news” of the kind Trump supporters delude themselves about. (Like all those who still believe Obama is an African-born Muslim.)

  5. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Perhaps part of the solution is to teach consumers of “news” to discriminate between authors who clearly have an agenda versus those who provide objective analysis. It’s almost always possible to tell the two apart, and with a little corroborating evidence one can reliably get at the truth most the time. For those who don’t know how, I recommend a course of study in critical thinking and analysis.

  6. Lee Says:

    @Gregory Kipp. Whether a current news item corroborates better with other evidence depends upon whether my other evidence comes from being a long-time reader of The New York Times or a long-time viewer of Fox News. Whichever I am used to strongly biases which source I will deduce to be reporting the truth for the current news item.

    Because a change of news source would require believing items that are inconsistent with past knowledge, it is a mighty big gap to leap.

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