Two weeks ago, many Londoners were asking whether the time had come to get off Facebook altogether. Individuals who have blithely used the platform for years were fearing for their privacy, security and politics.
Yet the implications for communities are as insidious, and perhaps even more destructive, as for individuals. Victoria’s mayor, Lisa Helps, in a blog titled “Why I’m quitting Facebook,” decided the time had come for her because:
“Facebook peddles in outrage . . . It has become a toxic echo chamber where people who have anything positive to say are often in defense mode against negativity and anger. Continuous reinforcement of existing beliefs tends to entrench those beliefs more deeply, while also making them more extreme and resistant to contrary facts.”
If you’re someone who fervently believes in democracy, this is gripping stuff, primarily since it can affect entire communities.
London is no exception.
Because Facebook shapes the messages we receive on its platform according to our own preferences, we easily can get ourselves into the position where facts or research don’t matter as much as do our opinions and the opinions of those who agree with us.
It gets all the worse because we are about to embark on provincial and civic election campaigns. The Facebook loop adds rocket fuel to our divisions and likely turns important issues, like the bus rapid transitproposal, into something of a bloodbath.
These aren’t simply differences of opinion on things that matter to us; they are issues that can tear us apart at the time when our city is endeavouring to find a collective path forward.
One would hope tools such as Facebook would help us break down barriers of misunderstanding and work out innovative ways for moving ahead. For the moment at least, that’s not what we’re getting.
Facebook, like Twitter, has become weaponized, and despite all the advantages such platforms offer in the way of activism, knowledge sharing and collaboration, they also have divided us in a fashion we have rarely experienced before. We are moving from politics to tribalism, a development Facebook has leveraged to gain its vast empire of more than two billion users.
Something fundamental has changed in how we communicate as a community. Since those first days of our incorporation as a city in 1855, citizens were in contact in schools, markets, movie houses, theatres, festivals, houses of worship and businesses, and by just walking about. All that began to change when home entertainment increasingly kept people inside.
But with the arrival of the internet, citizen life coalesced around online services, chiefly Facebook. We were in touch, but more often than not with people of like mind. We began living in bubbles, making it more difficult for stores and politicians to succeed at getting us together. Direct sociability receded. In its place were a keypad and a screen capable of getting us what we required without ever leaving home.
This is what Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, confessed in the midst of the recent scandal: “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences . . . the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to two billion people and literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Much of what electronics has done to society is our own doing as citizens and groups. We wanted something so useful for free, forgetting that civic discourse costs dearly if it is to be effective. It needs to be tolerant, understanding, honest, frank and, above all, collaborative in our pursuit of a better city.
Most citizens use technology that way, but the minority who disagree vehemently and disrespectfully have created the same kind of antipathy that hyper-partisanship has fomented in our recent politics, people turn off and also turn away from collective engagement.
We require tools like Facebook if we are to move forward as a city, but not if they undermine our security and our collective goodwill. The first part is Facebook’s responsibility; the second is up to us.