Facebook is People

We get the social media we deserve

The public has weighed in on Facebook in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal — and hit the like button. The company’s first-quarter earnings approached $12 billion, well ahead of expectations and up from the $8 billion it earned last year during the same period. This coincided with an additional 70 million users. More telling is its 13 percent rise in daily active users.

Facebook has emerged not only unscathed but seemingly strengthened. It will tinker around the edges to create the illusion of enhanced privacy and earn back some trust, but nothing fundamental about what it does will change, with so many so willing to be commodified.

Users, once instrumental in creating and defining, now merely inhabit these spaces and at the same time enable the companies that have come to dominate them.

Bias is My Business…

The first serious alarm bells around the manipulative nature of the site were sounded in 2012, when Facebook ran an experiment to study the impact of positive and negative feeds on user behavior. Stories that stir negative emotions, it turns out, are more likely to elicit a response. There was a significant “emotional contagion” that impacted user responses. The company received some negative press at the time for manipulating users and their feeds, but Facebook’s growth was unaffected.

By 2016, as Russians were micro-targeting users with bogus news accounts, one survey revealed that 91% of American adults felt that they had lost control over their personal data and how it is used. Zuckerberg, who has made a career out of apologizing for the errors made by him and his company, insists that users own their data because they are the ones who upload it to the site to share it with friends and family. Facebook merely licenses it.

Apart from the supposed 9 percent of users who opted to #DeleteFacebook, the most obvious reaction to the Cambridge breach might have been for disgruntled users to head to another platform, with Instagram being the most likely choice. Yet 60% of people surveyed are aware that Facebook owns Instagram and uses that data in many of the same ways.

But that is not to say that Facebook has a monopoly on social media platforms. It is also not, as some have argued, become so ingrained in how we live and work that we cannot do without it. It is not the railroads of years past. As Lance Ulanoff points out, users have a choice about their social media habits. Indeed, no one is required to have a social media account at all.

To the extent that Facebook is a monopoly, it is a monopoly of data derived from our collected online presence, not social media platforms themselves. In that sense, having Facebook shut down access to its API as a security measure means that it has more control over user data, but it also that the overall supply of that data has gone down. As a result, Facebook will remain the go-to platform for people looking to connect and for companies looking for vast amounts of user data to mine and exploit. It is even in a position to charge more for it.

In holding its “It’s free and always will be” slogan as a moral position, Facebook makes itself rely on ads and the data it collects from users for its profit. By comparison, Netflix is on pace to exceed 200 million subscribers by 2020 and seems to be doing quite nicely for itself. But as we’ve come to learn, if you’re not paying, then you’re the product.

One calculation puts the possible cost of a Facebook subscription at a meager $20 a year — or just over six cents an hour for the average user. A survey of users found 59 percent claiming they would not pay for it. Truly, customers that cheap deserve most of whatever is coming to them.

The Consciousness of a Commodity

In addition to the profit we are creating for Facebook, there is also the issue of the harm it is doing to the body politic.

More recent research has found that fake news is more likely to be circulated on social media. One of the biggest false news accounts during the 2016 election was the Pope Benedict endorsed Donald Trump for president. We also learned that Hillary Clinton was so crooked and depraved that she was running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, which on its face sounds ludicrous but not ludicrous enough to stop an armed man from showing up there to investigate.

It is an environment made for Donald Trump. His loyal minions clicked on and shared (real and fake) stories about him, and his detractors spread them even more. One chilling example of this is Republican approval of Vladimir Putin, which soared from 17 to 35 percent to correspond with the rise of Trump.

People are seemingly willing to believe anything that confirms their prejudices and fears. “Confirmation bias” sounds a bit too clinical and banal for the most extreme cases of what is just flat out hate. The more recent insanity relates to the fake claims of attacks on white audience members at screenings of Black Panther.

In January 2018, Facebook announced that it was altering the logarithm behind user’s feeds that would emphasize family and friends over news outlets. The goal was to emphasize the social connections and sharing that drives people to the site. But the result would also a greater sense of tribalism and more impenetrable bubbles of news from the world beyond the people you know and approve of. Users might be comforted in seeing more of the familiar, but it will not do anything to make things credible or trustworthy.

In addition to the outright lies and distortions, there is also the question of tone. A recent study showed the difficulty of curbing or controlling the tone online. One percent of the users is responsible for 74% of the conflicts. It is helpful to know that the troublemakers are fewer than we might imagine, but it also speaks to the difficulty of controlling for their impact. Twitter announced that it will begin showing users its rules, following a study on Reddit, which resulted in a slight improvement in behavior. Social science research has shown this to be a minimally invasive but effective means for self-enforcing of norms. It will most likely have little effect.

During his testimony Zuckerberg repeatedly offered AI as the solution to many of Facebook’s ills. But as Sarah Jeong reminds us, AI is just a tool, like all the other tools at Facebook’s disposal, many of which have been misused. The next technology is not an automatic fix for the last technology and how it is used or misused, so much as it is an opportunity to shirk responsibility and use delay tactics. It’s also possible, as Marx might remind us, that new technology might merely exacerbate the underlying power structures and give the people who misuse it more if different opportunities. Some flaws will be fixed, just as new loopholes will emerge.

Social media increasingly feels less like the dynamic public square that we were promised and more like one big glass house — where our best and worst selves are on display whether we like it or not.

Government Inaction in Action

The media called Zuckerberg’s appearance on the Hill a grilling, grilling, and a grilling, but the value of Facebook increased $3 billion over the course of his two-day testimony. Perhaps it was the realization that the Facebook founder and CEO owned a suit and tie. It might also have been the realization that his adversary was the U.S. Congress. (You know you’re innocuous when even USA Today calls you out.) Hearings, after all, are what Congress does when it knows it’s not going to do anything, but wants to do it good and loud, like a five-year old who refuses to clean his room because he was denied a pre-dinner cookie. The institution has dissolved into a dark and stagnant pool that has approval ratings lower than cockroaches and hemorrhoids.

Perhaps Congress could have been more effective if they knew more about Facebook and communications technology in general, or if they spent less time asking Zuckerberg for so many favors. Both sides seem to recognize what they have in common: an unwillingness to say anything unflattering about their constituents/users.

Peppered throughout Zuckerberg’s hearings was discussion about if and how Congress should act. Hearing Republicans speak glowingly about regulation would be amusing were it not so infuriating. This is a group, after all, that believes we have more to fear from Sharia law in the United States than the consequences of climate change.

In terms of tech, last March the GOP voted to remove some of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) privacy regulations, enacted under the Obama administration, related to having Internet Service Providers (ISPs) obtain permission before sharing location data, browser histories, and even health information.

It’s unlikely the Congress and the President could agree on the root of the problem, much less the scope of the solution. Ted Cruz, for example, is more concerned about the free speech protections for conspiracy theorists and racists than he is about privacy or election tampering.

Even the more strict and much-heralded European protections will not be enough to fundamentally change how data is collected, shared, and protected, especially since Facebook seems more interested in evading them than making them the new normal. Even so, much of their effectiveness will depend on the routine and regular vigilance of users. If privacy settings become merely a feature like terms of service that are flashed then forgotten, the problem might even become worse.

Congress’s focus Facebook has meant that the policies and practices followed by other companies and platforms, like Google and Android, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and Grindr, have been overlooked. People need to understand that taking the precautions afforded by VPNs, ad blockers, and end-to-end encryption are part of what it means live in a connected world.

Regardless of what is done or not done by Facebook or the Congress, users need to learn more about their online behavior and social presence. If Facebook is going to be made into a place that provides a net benefit to liberal and democratic society, it is going to have to come from the people who use it.

In the meantime, anyone willing to give up essential privacy to obtain a little convenience deserves neither privacy nor convenience.