“Facebook is the public square that we inhabit and we can walk away from that square.” David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Having coffee with a friend recently, I asked a question, something I have been thinking about for a long time: Do you think Mark Zuckerberg is happy?
Ok, I know. Maybe a dumb question. Why wouldn’t he be happy? He is the chairman, CEO, and controlling shareholder of Facebook, a social media platform that has 2.8 million monthly users and is estimated to be worth more than a trillion dollars. He doesn’t need to go to a bar like Cheers. Wherever Mark goes, everyone knows his name.
And that’s the problem. These days Facebook and Instagram, owned by Facebook, are being blamed for everything from amplifying misinformation about the 2020 election leading to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, to spreading falsehoods about the Covid-19 vaccines, making U.S. efforts to vaccinate people more difficult. Internal documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal found that Instagram was harming teenage girls’ self esteem, leading to depression, self-harming, and suicide attempts. What did Facebook do with this information? Nothing.
Frances Haugen, who was hired by Facebook to protect against election interference, quit in frustration when she felt the social media giant was not actively trying to change the way it does business, routinely choosing company profits over public safety. She turned over thousands of pages in internal research, memos, and emails to the Wall Street Journal which formed the basis of a series the newspaper ran recently called “The Facebook Files.” Haugen, who has asked the Security and Exchange Commission for whistleblower protection, revealed her identity when she appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes on October 3. Testifying before the Senate Commerce consumer protection, product safety and data security subcommittee, Haugen said: “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed.”
Zuckerberg, launched Facebook in 2004 when he was a student at Harvard. The site began as a way for college students to connect with each other. It was then discovered by friends and grandparents as a way to keep in touch with family members and connect with long-lost acquaintances. Soon other and, some would say, more nefarious actors, discovered Facebook – politicians, advertisers, people with extremist messages, even drug cartels. Seventeen years after its first days at Harvard, Facebook has become a worldwide powerhouse, focused less on people and more on making money at any cost. Haugen laid out quite clearly that the way Facebook employs algorithms results in “prioritizing polarizing, hateful content.”
According to Haugen, when Facebook’s research turned up information that “misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent” on the social media giant, time and time again, Facebook opted to protect its bottom line. Turns out that the way to keep people on the site is to keep them angry. Like a post that causes your blood to boil? Then more will come your way to keep you hitting those emojis.
Facebook has managed to do something that seems nearly impossible – unite Democrats and Republicans on an issue. That’s why I wonder whether Zuckerberg is happy. He is being demonized in many places of power, and has been called to testify before Congress so many times he must be tired of making that cross country trip. In the wake of Haugen’s appearance, he certainly will be called to testify again. If lawmakers have their way, the company that he owns, which not only includes Facebook and Instagram, but also WhatsApp, could be subjected to federal regulation, even broken up to reduced its power. But with everything else on Capitol Hill, there’s little chance that anything will happen anytime soon.
Speculation in the media portrays Facebook as being in serious trouble. “Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble,” said New York Times technology writer Kevin Rouse. “What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize.” He points out that teens have been fleeing Facebook for years in favor of other sites like TikTok. Facebook’s internal research predicts that daily use would decline by 45 percent by 2023.
That day may come, but in the meantime, Facebook and Instagram remain potent forces in our society. When Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp went down for nearly a day on October 4, the power and reach of those sites was on full display as business for many came to a halt. In the run up to the 2022 midterms and then the 2024 election, will Facebook be aggressive in removing disinformation from the site or allow bad actors to further harm our democracy?
That’s why right now, people need to vote with their feet, or, in this case, their delete key. Imagine if millions or billions of users decided to leave, or, at least take a break from Facebook? What message would that send? If Zuckerberg is worried about his bottom line, why not take advantage and impact revenues?
That’s why Woman Around Town is exiting Facebook, despite the fact that it will most likely harm our traffic since we won’t be posting about our stories. Our hope is that our readers will find us anyway. (I will also be exiting my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts. Perhaps rather than interacting online, I can catch up with family and friends on the phone or in person.) If others follow, maybe things can change. Haugen exhibited incredible courage speaking out about what she saw at Facebook. She said she wants to fix the company, not harm it. We do, too. Leaving the public square that has become Facebook is one step in that direction.
Top photo: Bigstock