Time to act on Facebook’s crushing influence
We may have just witnessed a historic turning-point moment for (or rather against) Facebook, the hugely dominant force of social media. Within 48 hours last week, Facebook suffered a succession of big blows and saw the world gain high awareness of this behemoth’s dangerous impacts on the world.
On Oct. 3, a former Facebook project manager gave a long TV interview explaining how the company, having done research and known about the negative impacts that Instagram, its subsidiary company, has on young girls in particular, continues to optimize its algorithms for monetary gain at the expense of people’s well-being. The next day, by coincidence, the whole Facebook-WhatsApp-Instagram network crashed for six hours, impacting economic activity as well as social communications, raising awareness of the platforms’ stranglehold on the world. Another day later, last Tuesday, the same former Facebook manager-turned-whistleblower, Frances Haugen, gave a long deposition to a US Senate subcommittee that was carried live on CNN and other TV networks. It resulted in a rare wide agreement among policymakers and observers that something serious must be done about Facebook.
First, what ills and evils is Facebook accused of or blamed for? There are mainly two (big) issues: Facebook’s worldwide impact and monopolistic activity; and its algorithms, which try to maximize profit (by keeping people on the platform as long as possible and constantly bombarding them with ads) and pay little regard to people’s well-being.
According to statista.com, Facebook today has 2.9 billion active users, WhatsApp has about 2 billion monthly users, and Instagram has 1.1 billion users, many of them common. Moreover, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, milks the personal data they collect on their users, raising data privacy issues, such as I discussed in my last column. Indeed, one Facebook consultant, who was formerly a CIA officer, said: “Facebook knows you better than the CIA ever will… Facebook knows more about you than you know about yourself.”
Facebook has been accused of having no moral compass and of holding a “profit-driven amorality.” Indeed, it has done little to prevent villains from using its pages for criminal activity, ranging from ethnic cleansing (against the Rohingya in Myanmar and other oppressed minorities) to human trafficking and drug cartel killings. Closer to us, it has known about the mental ills that edited and glamorized Instagram photos have on young girls (depression, anorexia, etc.), not to mention the addictiveness of its platforms, and it has done little to redress these serious effects.
It has done little to prevent villains from using its pages for criminal activity, ranging from ethnic cleansing to human trafficking and drug cartel killings
Facebook has also done everything it can to crush competitors. For example, it greatly reduces the visibility of posts that take the user outside its platform, such as to YouTube, Twitter or elsewhere. It also buys content from news companies and independent providers, who need that money and are thus unlikely to do or say anything that will upset Facebook; as a result, a third of Americans consume news from within Facebook
And if that were not enough, the company is working hard on what chief executive Mark Zuckerberg calls “a metaverse,” which will include virtual reality, to keep the user living completely and exclusively within this Facebook “meta/universe.”
That’s a lot of bad news. The good news is that there is growing consensus that something needs to be done. But what exactly?
Observers are currently divided into two main ideas. One group, including Haugen, believes that Facebook must be forced to modify its algorithms to ensure people’s, especially youngsters’, well-being. Various steps need to be taken, including getting rid of social media for young kids — Instagram put on hold its plan to release a version for kids younger than 13, but Facebook does currently have the Messenger Kids app for six to 12-year-olds. They also want to filter images that lead to low self-esteem or to hate and anger (two emotions that the current algorithms inadvertently promote, as hate-filled and angry posts tend to be shared a lot by people), as well as other such modifications.
The second group calls for breaking up Facebook, or at the very least splitting WhatsApp and Instagram from it and preventing any other similar mergers or takeovers. Even this, they say, will not be enough; it will need to be strengthened by support for smaller competitors, using tax breaks, subsidies and other incentives.
In the meantime, we laypeople, especially educators and media specialists, can do some important things to help reduce the negative effects of Facebook and Instagram. In Finland, elementary school children are taught how to identify fake stories, altered photos, clickbait and hate-inducing content. Students are trained and then tested on analyzing online content. Likewise, public libraries, colleges and universities could offer free workshops to adults on how to identify misinformation and how to avoid getting addicted to social media and digital content and devices.
How and why Facebook (with Instagram and WhatsApp) was able to grip and affect nearly half of humanity is a big and wide issue for sociologists to analyze for years to come. Whatever the causes and factors, we need to act now at various levels, for our world is being crushed.
• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum