[OP-ED]: The real costs of social media
In the wake of the deadly London attacks, Facebook made yet another statement in which it reaffirmed its desire to be a force for good and not a platform for hatred.
Facebook wants to “provide a service where people feel safe. That means we do not allow groups or people that engage in terrorist activity, or posts that express support for terrorism. We want Facebook to be a hostile environment for terrorists,” said Simon Milner, director of policy at Facebook, in a statement.
Something terrible happens -- someone live broadcasts a murder, a white supremacist stabs two good Samaritans on a train, another tragedy in a line of Islamic State-inspired rampages -- and the alleged perpetrator’s Facebook posts are quoted from at length in the news coverage.
Afterward, there is a statement from the company about not wanting to provide the tools for people to harm others. Then comes the hemming and hawing by free speech advocates and victim advocates, and, lastly, Likes and angry-face emojis from those who are neither but just have to weigh in.
But before you know it, it’s back to misinformed commenting on the headlines of real news articles that have not been read and cheering for the story of the mall Santa who beat up the child-molesting stepfather -- a fakie that has its own Snopes entry and has been making the rounds lately, even though it’s June.
In this context, the calls for Facebook to curb fake news, take down extreme and violent content in a timely manner and prevent the fomenting of hatred are kind of absurd.
Facebook has created a Frankenstein monster that is nearly 2 billion monthly active users strong. And it’s done so by making “sharing” -- and the dopamine release that comes from quantifying other people’s reactions to one’s posts -- so easy and engaging that one small study said that the power of Facebook addiction was comparable to drug addiction and gambling.
How could anyone expect a corporate behemoth that makes hundreds of billions of dollars from mining our interests and social connections to willingly police its service in such a way that might decrease its traffic?
Facebook and other social-media sites rose to prominence on the promise of democratizing everything from free speech to innovation to foreign governments.
Yet even though this promise has been broken time and again, people are hooked on this system of coordinated public performance despite the fact that it can make them feel bad about themselves or even harm their own lives.
There are too many studies to count about Facebook usage lowering self-esteem and heightening social anxiety, and endless examples of people behaving on the platform in ways that get them fired, or in trouble. Recently, 10 members of the incoming Harvard freshman class had their admittance rescinded after they posted memes and images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, the deaths of children and racial insults on an offshoot of the official Class of 2021 group they thought was private.
Concerns about too much sharing have led some tech-obsessed adults to proactively secure social-media accounts for their infant children. “On the day of her birth, our daughter already had accounts at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even GitHub,” wrote Amy Webb in a Salon.com story about why she and her husband post nothing about their daughter online to preserve her privacy.
Her tactics are sound -- it’s all too easy to hijack someone’s internet identity, so why not take the precaution -- but we must challenge her premise that, “It’s inevitable that our daughter will become a public figure, because we’re all public figures in this new digital age.”
This is simply not true.
We are not all bound to a social compact of experiencing every moment of our private lives through the interface of public social platforms.
Social media is not compulsory -- there may be an interpersonal cost to not being active online with vast networks of people whom you may know very well or not at all, but the gains (like peace of mind, quiet and privacy) can be priceless.
Ultimately, networks like Facebook and Twitter thrive on eyeballs. If we really believe they should be disarmed of their capacity to hurt, we need only to starve them of our time and attention.