Facebook’s Private Walled Gardens are Toxic
The echo bubble isn’t dead, it’s just beginning.
When I think of Facebook’s pivot to privacy and encrypted chat, I think about Facebook Groups.
If YouTube’s algorithm is a dangerous echo bubble leading people down increasingly steep hills of indoctrination and more extreme views, Facebook Groups are the unanimous social media equivalent.
I’ve myself witnessed and experienced incredible harassment and toxic echo-bubbles in Facebook groups, and I’m not alone.
In a BBC op-ed I read recently entitled Facebook May be Pivoting to Something Worse I could sense the chill of echo bubbles in some of the darkest moments yet displayed online.
If US Watchdog Groups are calling for congress to put a freeze on Facebook’s Libra, the private Facebook groups are a perpetual display of what’s wrong with social media.
Facebook is Pivoting to the Algorithmic State
Cliques of similar people are voicing toxic opinions that are detrimental to our mental and civic health and lead to social unrest. Facebook bombards us with notification spam that disrupts our sleep cycle, our illusion of “connection” online and warps our opinions with a mob mentality.
Over the past few months, Mark Zuckerberg has spoken at length about his grand plan for fixing Facebook. You can read his own article on Facebook here about the future of a more private Facebook.
Some segments of the population are still vulnerable to Facebook’s addiction mechanism that entraps us in Facebook Groups.
Yet increasingly there are demonstrations of how these Facebook Groups that are supposed to connect us with like-minded people are actually dangerous to our mental health and social well being.
Facebook Groups Hide a Toxic American Experiment
On July 1st, 2019, ProPublica revealed the existence of a private Facebook group which contained disturbing jokes allegedly posted by US Border Patrol agents. Facebook groups have existed like this since forever and a lot of division is taking place because of them. They are actually disrupting America with toxic engagement that makes people more extreme in their viewpoints. This is called by sociologists the echo-bubble effect.
We are exposed to “people like us”, without a representative diverse set of opinions. It’s a bit like ideological comfort for the philosophically lazy. They mistake real connection for being victims of the echo bubble effect.
Congress Won’t Regulate Facebook
Lobbyists seem to have gotten to Congress, where Facebook audits appear woefully inadequate.
From democracy being hacked by Russia to the costs of Facebook’s apps on society and our productivity, not to mention mental health, advertising rules the internet in 2019.
To entrap over 2 Billion global users means providing the most addictive private group experiences. Self-conformation bias means we are more attracted to communicate with people like us who share and most resemble our political views, values and even our gender, age and occupation. But congregating together (online) on such groups is not enough. Generally speaking, these groups seek out a “common enemy” to rally against together.
We are Victims of Algorithms
I laughed out loud when I read TechCrunch’s analysis of Zuck’s privacy pivot PR statement. In a ballooning 3,225 words — a roughly average word count for the terminally verbose Facebook founder — Zuckerberg informed his miserably loyal 2.3 billion plus subjects that his company has happened upon a concept known as privacy and, in doing so, it sees an opportunity.
Unfortunately for millions of people who still use Facebook socially, they are more like the experiment, and less like opportunists.
They are vulnerable to being exploited by Facebook’s algorithm and echo-bubbles to find shared conformity while perpetuating toxic behaviors. I’ve seen first hand how such private groups behind Facebook’s walled garden can lead to hostile and harassing behavior.
ProPublica (the investigative site) recently demonstrated how comments including mockery of migrants that had died in custody, as well as aggressive, sexist remarks about prominent female politicians took place in a Facebook Group for border employees. The group has existed for more than three years and has almost 10,000 members.
The Dark Psychology of Echo Bubbles
That is, US Border Patrol agents were making fun of people who had suffered as a result of their policies and behaviors. The Echo Bubble is this dangerous. You cannot blame people. You actually have to understand that the digital dopamine reinforcers around Facebook algorithms does lead to this. People for the most part aren’t even aware of the interaction of algorithms with their mob like behaviors.
ProPublica first reported this story, you can read it here.
Facebook Groups therefore are a bit like radicalization groups. They don’t unite us, they divide us, and it’s by design. Such groups are more immersive and addictive as products.
Facebook fully understands what it has been doing.
The dark-pattern technocrats are in power. Facebook isn’t going anywhere but with Libra and its pivot to privacy it could actually become way more powerful.
Facebook Groups are just one symptom of how this is unhealthy for society, where one person, an unchecked CEO, can change the course of technological history and the future of the internet.
Members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.
Now this is just one simple example of how Facebook groups can become toxic, clearly most of them do not. Facebook only cares about how addictive its products are, not how they are used for human good or creating conflict.
Young people globally fled Facebook’s flagship app a long time ago, and people who work in technology most of all. Why do you think that is? They realized Facebook’s attention capture economy isn’t just not cool, it’s potentially downright evil. While Facebook executives have fled Mark Zuckerberg’s “pivot to privacy”, what Libra could become is also alarming the global community.
Facebook Likes us Dumb
Created in August 2016, the Facebook group is called “I’m 10–15” and boasts roughly 9,500 members from across the country. Mark Zuckerberg also hopes our digital IQ remains at the approximate age of 10–15. For billions of people in the developing world, that’s exactly the case. This is why Libra aims to offer banking and financial convenience to these new users, to entrap them in things like Facebook Groups and Instagram.
Facebook Groups aren’t being monitored or regulated for safety, trolling, harassment or toxic behaviors. The conditions within Facebook’s own content monitoring farms are already toxic themselves. Churn is high, the pay is low and its content monitors risk digital equivalence to PTSD.
Facebook enforces complex guidelines against hate speech, abuse and other categories when it comes to users’ posts to their friends or to the public. Yet as it pivots to a private walled-garden approach, it doesn’t need to monitor things as much — it’s a way for Facebook to save money.
Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about privacy for 15 years as he’s simultaneously become the tycoon and poster child of all that is wrong with the internet. Even shareholders don’t have enough votes to request a change of CEO or Board Director.
Facebook Groups nearly always flourish with some scam or some misinformation. The Washington Post detailed a flurry of groups offering bogus cancer treatment “advice”, such as to “use baking soda or frankincense” instead of chemotherapy. These groups are able and allowed to flourish — the Post reported at least two with more than 100,000 members. My personal favorite, of course, is how to become a better writer if you take this course or subscribe to this podcast.
Facebook benefits from advertising revenue per user, so it has no real incentive to tackle misinformation nor the capability to do so.
In 2019, Facebook cannot regulate itself and it’s only going to get worse. This is because its pivot to privacy is part of a devious scheme to become more regulated, more shock proof and more profitable. In the meantime I think we can expect Facebook Groups to become more toxic just as WhatsApp is used in more dangerous ways in places like India.
In the big picture Facebook doesn’t really care about you, nor do people on Facebook. In such groups, the mob always wins and the algorithm dictates the narrative of the mob. If you are minority or are contrarian to the ethics or even the demographics of the Facebook Group, you run the risk of getting trolled just as you would on Reddit, Twitter or anywhere else on an increasingly toxic internet.
Hidden from view
According to the BBC article, what makes these examples of abuse more significant than what we’ve seen in the past? They show how Facebook’s strategy has the ability to push its problems into the shadows.
Even Facebook finds it more difficult to find itself accountable when it comes to groups. Its pivot to privacy means it’s comfortable operating in the shade. Facebook Groups are like a toxic soup equivalent of the dark net, but for shared interests, extreme views, gossip and trolling memes.
It’s a product feature and while we live in a world starved of genuine connection, a few of us are pulled into these algorithmically controlled online halls. What happens in the algo and echo chambers stays in there. You can hurl abuse at people you don’t even know, without any consequences (to you, that is).
Facebook has ironically stated its ability to use algorithms and AI to detect hate speech and misinformation still falls short, and therefore it still relies heavily on users reporting inappropriate content. But like rape in real life or online harassment, to whom do you report being trolled that you suspect the algorithm incentivizes?
You cannot blame the algo when it’s everywhere, it’s the basis of Google and Facebook’s stranglehold on the western internet. It’s the evil henchman of their advertising profits and their entire model of how to squeeze value out of people as products.
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