I’ve become increasingly worried about social media and its role in today’s society. Nowadays everyone of us uses one of such services, be it Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc… With time the use of technology became increasingly personal and it’s difficult to imagine a smartphone user not having Whatsapp on its phone (I’m talking about the Western markets primarily). If the phones are not used to share text they are used to share photos: Instagram being one of the biggest platform for that. After having stopped Snapchat in its meteoric rise, it’s rapidly approaching 1 Billion users. What have most of these top apps in common? They are all owned by Facebook.
What I want to say is: Facebook is a de facto monopoly of the modern communication infrastructure, it doesn’t own the cables, but the vast majority of the platforms upon which we talk with each other. Its reach is only growing in scale, with strategic acquisitions and spin-offs is also approaching your workplace. If the incredible power it has isn’t enough there’s also another issue: Facebook it’s largely a one man company. Mark Zuckerberg has managed an incredible feat, taking investors and making the company public while maintaining full control over its own creation. If history tells us something is that when power is held by only one guy it rarely ends well. In the article I’m going to approach this situation from three distinct fronts: political, societal and economical.
One of the biggest story of the last U.S. presidential election was (and still is) the so-called Russia-gate. Whether it has some merit to it, it shed a light over social media, and in that particular case Facebook, and how it can be use to sway public perception over particular issues. Specific articles could be targeted to specific types of people in such a way that wasn’t possible before. This method was super-effective. We have to realise that even more effective than running ad campaigns is to run the engine that present those to people: the News Feed algorithm. And this is not limited to ads, but stories, articles, posts, pictures, etc… You could manipulate users in subtle, but powerful ways. Probably it never happened, but the fact that it could, the possibility, is terrifying. And it’s not like Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t give us room to feel better about it.
It has been rumoured that he’s preparing to run for president, if not the next election cycle the one after that. His photographic tour of the 50 states reminisce of political tour that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton could embark on. The photos are also kind of telling, like the classic photo in a traditionally black church. Zuckerberg also published a manifesto on how he sees the future of society and what are the values he wants to encourage. This document has been said to present a social dystopia by many. And while we could debate about the ethics of using a privately owned company in such a way, it’s certain that you should feel at least unsettled. “From great power comes great responsibility” and the power was certainly misused before, selectively and effectively censoring dissenting ideas. This shows at best irresponsibility, and at worst plain manipulation.
Like this wasn’t enough there’s also the intrinsic danger of the social media game. Facebook despite what many claims is not a Media company, but an Ad one. The entire model is: first grow users, increase engagement, attract businesses, and finally sell ads. Regarding news consumption on the new media, Ryan Chittum wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review
The equivalent of Google, Facebook, and Twitter in the pre-Internet days would be a newspaper that shut down its newsroom, kept the ad department (though replacing much of it with robots), and printed stuff other people wrote. Today, Facebook’s got your weddings, baby announcements, and soccer pictures. Twitter’s got your breaking news. And Google’s got your stock listings, sports scores, news, recipes, etc. Oh yeah, and Craigslist has your classifieds.
The danger of using this platforms in particular is the one of filter bubbles. Being presented, to engage you and sell more ads, continuously and uniquely with already held ideas by ideologically aligned people and outlets. This is living in a bubble, an echo chamber which limits public discourse and skews and heightens prejudices.
I think this point is pretty well known, unconsciously or not, social media makes us unhappy. This is especially true for teen agers and while it’s not only true for Facebook, I think that it had a giant contribution on where social media as a whole ended up. Plenty of scientific articles confirms it, the use of this platform has plenty of downsides.
But maybe more damning is an interview from an early contributor/executive of Facebook gave an eerie interview. It’s form last month and I recommend watching the full interview, but here’s an excerpt, which I ask you to ponder upon:
I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. You are being programmed
Facebook managed to put itself in a really interesting position. It’s what many call an Internet monopoly. It controls so much the virtual infrastructure that basically everyone (or at least 2 Billion people) uses it, making it a network monopoly of the internet era. Monopolies are bad for various reasons, and they’re not the particular scope of this article, but it all boils down to: limiting innovation and exploiting users. While we touched upon the second part, let’s explore the first one.
It has bought nascent (at the time) and fast growing company such as Whatsapp and Instagram, impeding the spread of possible competing network. Considering how difficult is to building such a sizeable platform due to the network effect, it bought out the competition before they became too big. The lack of forward thinking regulatory judgement is astonishing. Nobody stopped these acquisitions. Beside the companies Facebook has bought (tbh being the latest case), it can use product integration (copying features) to stomp on newcomers, see Snapchat’s case.
If you have to get away with something from this article, I hope it’s the following: Facebook controls your attention, and there’s nobody in sight to stop it. The only possible solution I can see is a regulatory effort, which may involve unbundling (splitting) Facebook into multiple companies. Would it be an easy task? I certainly don’t think so, but done well it could be the only way to prevent possible disasters.
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