This year is a time of reckoning for the world’s most popular social network. From their own website (which I’ll link to via archive.org because I don’t link to Facebook). Note the use of the passive voice:
Facebook was originally designed to connect friends and family — and it has excelled at that. But as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it’s being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated.
It’s pretty amazing that a Facebook spokesperson is saying things like this:
I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t. That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.
What they are careful to do is to paint a picture of Facebook as somehow ‘neutral’ and being ‘hijacked’ by bad actors. This isn’t actually the case.
As an article in The Guardian points out, executives at Facebook and Twitter aren’t exactly heavy users of their own platforms:
It is a pattern that holds true across the sector. For all the industry’s focus on “eating your own dog food”, the most diehard users of social media are rarely those sitting in a position of power.
These sites are designed to be addictive. So, just as drug dealers “don’t get high on their own supply”, so those designing social networks know what they’re dealing with:
These addictions haven’t happened accidentally… Instead, they are a direct result of the intention of companies such as Facebook and Twitter to build “sticky” products, ones that we want to come back to over and over again. “The companies that are producing these products, the very large tech companies in particular, are producing them with the intent to hook. They’re doing their very best to ensure not that our wellbeing is preserved, but that we spend as much time on their products and on their programs and apps as possible. That’s their key goal: it’s not to make a product that people enjoy and therefore becomes profitable, but rather to make a product that people can’t stop using and therefore becomes profitable.
The trouble is that this advertising-fuelled medium which is built to be addictive, is the place where most people get their news these days. Facebook has realised that it has a problem in this regard so they’ve made the decision to pass the buck to users. Instead of Facebook, or anyone else, deciding which news sources an individual should trust, it’s being left up to users.
While this sounds empowering and democratic, I can’t help but think it’s a bad move. As The Washington Post notes:
“They want to avoid making a judgment, but they are in a situation where you can’t avoid making a judgment,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “They are looking for a safe approach. But sometimes you can be in a situation where there is no safe route out.”
The article continues to cite former Facebook executives who think that the problems are more than skin-deep:
They say that the changes the company is making are just tweaks when, in fact, the problems are a core feature of the Facebook product, said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook privacy operations manager.
“If they demote stories that get a lot of likes, but drive people toward posts that generate conversation, they may be driving people toward conversation that isn’t positive,” Parakilas said.
A final twist in the tale is that Rupert Murdoch, a guy who has no morals but certainly has a valid point here, has made a statement on all of this:
If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies. The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services. Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.”