Facebook and democracy: it’s complicated

Over the past months I’ve defended Facebook, said it was neutral, then charged it with accelerating the demise of social capital.

None of the above is accurate.

Facebook is a magnifying glass, it can not be held responsible for social issues, but can’t ignore them either.

I came to this conclusion when meeting one of the most interesting person I’ve talked to while working on my Come Together project: French sociologist Pascal Viot. His job is to study safety at large events, and as head of security he is very much in the same position as Facebook: tasked with creating a safe environment for people to gather and meet, while finding solutions to global issues such as terrorism and violence.

In many ways, this is a terribly unfair position. Events didn’t create nor ask for those problems. What does a music festival or football game have to do with the crisis in the Middle East?

But people like Pascal can’t throw in the towel on problem because they take root in factors they don’t control. Regardless of the origin of those challenges, they have to do what they can to the best of their ability. You can’t ignore terrorism, drugs or violence because you have nothing to do with their emergence or existence.

Facebook didn’t ask for armies of cynical spammers trying to make money off fake news. Facebook does not encourage the verbal abuse resulting of decades of social capital destruction. Facebook wasn’t even born when the economic and political forces that created today’s divided society started to go to work.

Our social media feeds are surfacing those issues in dramatic fashion, invading our most intimate moments with a constant barrage of information, creating unheard of proximity between parts of society that usually don’t collide.. We can no longer function as in the past, when inequality and bigotry only had to be looked in the eye sporadically, when riots or protests would force the media to look under the rug.

So we blame the messenger: “Facebook rigged the election!” But pointing a finger at Mark Zuckerberg and asking him to solve those problems would be the equivalent of asking events to solve terrorism: it does not make sense. Accordingly, Facebook’s defense that they don’t have to deal with such problems equals to a concert organizer saying “we won’t protect you from terrorism because we are not responsible for the behaviour of those people”.

Put differently, society can not blame Facebook for its deep problems, as it is only a magnifying glass that can’t alone solve issues resulting from decades of greed, cynicism and short term thinking. On the other end, Facebook can’t ignore those issues because they didn’t create them and are outside of their control.

Two things need to urgently happen. Society needs to stop thinking of technology as a miracle solution that will invariably fail to live up to unrealistic expectations, then be used as a scapegoat allowing us to collectively avoid the necessary debate on hard questions. And tech companies need to stop pretending they are neutral platforms that do not have to pay attention to deep social problems under the pretext they didn’t create them. Uber, Facebook, Google and company have to come to terms with the fact that, while not asked to be perfect, they have to be diligent, and do their part in helping society prosper.

Once technology and society meet in the middle, once we all stop pointing fingers and start making concrete efforts, then and only then will the pieces of a more productive world be in place, and a much better future becomes possible.