Eight years ago next month, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg sat down and wrote a letter to his shareholders. In language that seemed so natural, so human, he laid out what Facebook had done for the world.
“We believe we have created a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people to get exposed to a great number of diverse perspectives. By helping people form those connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information.”
It all seemed to suit the times – an era when social media and emerging applications would bring communities and the world together. Zuckerberg had made the commitment that Facebook would never grow into a company obsessed with revenue and profits.
None of this turned out to be right. To be sure, many have rediscovered old friends, celebrated important moments, and even furthered important initiatives through Facebook’s platform. But it is now clear that the opposite effect has been far more damning and destructive. By 2017, the year that the company boasted of having two billion members, the use of its platform lead to violence, hatred and despotic authoritarianism in Kenya, Poland, Indonesia, India, and the most publicized of all, the United States. It has been used by political parties in countries like Britain, France and Canada to divide citizens as much as possible in order to gain political advantage. Its algorithms have been used to foment hatred, racism and the worst kinds of populism.
The company will attempt to deny such charges of course, but it’s too late – no one believes them anymore because there’s just too much evidence to the contrary. Investigations, both external and internal, revealed that Russian influence in using Facebook to undermine democracy reached at least 126 million Americans in an effort to affect the 2016 election. Zuckerberg’s response was as it always have been – “We’re sorry. We’ll do better.” The reality is, however, that this company with such a great global reach worked with agents of hatred and division to swing certain election outcomes – not out of ideology but for the naked pursuit of revenue. That makes Facebook not only the largest social platform in the world but the most political one as well.
Those heart-warming words and terms – connected planet, sharing, concepts, engagement, community – have given way to a more dramatic and demeaning vocabulary driven by extremism through the use of Facebook’s platform. There is no just too much damning research and evidence to say otherwise and the company’s response is what it always has been – “We’re sorry. “We’ll do better.” Well, it’s too late. It’s influence, out of pursuit of revenue, has undermined democracy and intellectual capital around the world. Think “fake news” and it will be Facebook that changed it from an overused term into a powerful weapon against truth and truthtellers.
This won’t be any kind of surprise to most of us, but that leaves us with just one problem: we still use it. But what we utilize to make our personal worlds a little bit more defined is, at the same time, being used to undermine the very democracies and communities we are trying to build.
And in the process of dividing the world we truly wish for, Facebook has been stealing our identities and invading our privacies in ways that shock us when we learn of such practices. It’s techno-narcissism of the worst kind – from a self-centred company and billions of dependent citizens hooked on “likes” and “friend requests.”
I spoke with numerous folks over the holidays who quit Twitter sometime previous and attempted to live out their online life on Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook). Twitter might be the worst when it comes to little governance and tolerance of digital attacks, but Facebook, whose reach and monetary value easily dwarfs Twitter, enjoys a reach so vast that it can literally manipulate entire nations and swing important elections. Nothing rivals it and, for the moment at least, no government is willing to take on the legislative clout to limit its deviant tendencies. Some of those same people who moved off of Twitter now acknowledge they have left Facebook as well, or are seriously considering it.
The biggest challenge for us regarding Facebook? It is our ability to think objectively. The world is far bigger than Facebook, but our personalized worlds are manipulated by it every minute of every day. In our pursuit of “likes” or “friends,” we have lost our ability through the platform to gain broader visions, more objective realities, along with the concept of truth and context. Or as Franklin Foer would put it: “The biggest problem is that Facebook and Google are these giant feedback loops that give people what they want to hear. And when you use them in a world where your biases are being constantly confirmed, you become susceptible to fake news, propaganda, demagoguery.” The other half of that equation is that Facebook also takes your privacy and desires, selling them to the highest bidder.
Jack Dorsey, head of Twitter, is well enough aware that his platform has been used to pass one the vilest of hate, racism and even violence – actions that have occasionally led victims to suicide. Mark Zuckerberg is no longer the computer geek at Harvard developing an exciting new program. Both of these men have morphed from being tech innovators to people craving wealth and influence. As one person commented in an observation last year: “Facebook and Twitter don’t favour hatred. But hatred favours Facebook and Twitter.”