Tim Steller

Tim Steller

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Facebook can be nice, if you don’t get sucked in too deep, or if you have to use it for work.

But it doesn’t beat real life.

That’s been my experience after two weeks of no posting to Facebook, a site I used to use constantly. I met more people in person, talked to more on the phone, and had more time for other things when I wasn’t using Facebook.

Coincidentally, over that same period, we learned more about social-media companies’ mishandling of their own sites, especially during the 2016 election. As Facebook prepared to face congressional questioning last week, the company acknowledged that Russian agents, posing as American activists, reached up to 126 million Facebook users with divisive political messages about refugees, immigration and other topics.

Americans gobbled it up.

The Russian efforts may or may not have had an influence on the election — there was plenty of similar, non-Russian content floating around during the campaign. But I thought Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, made a perceptive and relevant point about the Russians’ efforts during Wednesday’s hearing as he questioned executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google.

He said the Russians “understood that the algorithms you use tend to accentuate content that is either fear-based or anger-based. That helps it pick up an audience and go viral and be amplified.”

He went on, “The algorithms that are designed to keep our attention and keep our eyes on the platform for advertising purposes may also have the unintended consequence of widening divisions of our society, of polarizing people.”

Certainly that’s been my experience over the last few years on Facebook, which remains by far the dominant social-media platform. Far from bringing people together, it drives them apart. Foreign meddlers just exploit that tendency by repeatedly plucking hot nerves.

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, denied that is the intent of the algorithms. He said Facebook mostly shows users posts that their friends and family are interested in.

“In a political season, oftentimes what’s important to your friends and family are challenging, provocative social issues, so you will see that. Our responsibility is that when you see that content, it’s authentic, so that you can trust the dialogue that’s occurring on the platform.”

As questionable as the platforms’ behavior may be, that’s where the real problem lies: With us. Social media so instantly reflect users’ authentic impulses — while keeping us at a physical remove from each other — that they often display and perpetuate the worst in us. The fact that the platforms have no real filter means there are no social standards. Funny how that used to seem like a good thing.

Just last week, Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes was forced to apologize after telling a man who posted Facebook critiques of Fontes’ handling of Tuesday’s election to “go F- yourself.” Here’s the kicker: They were both Democrats who largely agree on the issues, but on Facebook the conversation spiraled downward quickly.

As a journalist, though, I have to offer a conditional surrender to social media. These days, you can’t be an efficient, effective researcher without Facebook or other platforms. Before even a day had passed from the time I deactivated my Facebook account on Oct. 18, I found I needed to use Facebook’s messenger system to contact colleagues and sources. The messenger system can work without having an active Facebook account.

Then, a couple of days later, I found myself needing to reactivate my account to check out a couple of local news tips that were posted on Facebook. And a few days after that, I found myself needing Facebook to look up and contact a person I didn’t know for a possible column. It was the most efficient way.

Before the internet, we used the phone book, and it seemed pretty full of information — all those names, addresses and phone numbers. Facebook operates in a different dimension. People have freely shared with the world their pictures, their family connections, their political views, their employment history, their contact information. Facebook has made billions off of that info, and it frankly makes a reporter’s job much easier.

It’s also seductive, almost addictive. It’s designed to make you keep going back for the next post or comment that triggers a dopamine rush in your brain. The resulting habit can almost be like a drug dependency.

So for many of us, unhappy either with how we use social media or how it uses us, the only solution is to do the kind of thing Elliott Glicksman did Friday. Without knowing about my column two weeks ago criticizing Facebook, Glicksman, a well-known local attorney, posted this Friday:

“Leaving Facebook til it’s fixed. I’ve loved FB for years. It began and remains a great way to find old friends, keep up with out of town family, and see pictures of everyone’s dinner. But lately I’ve realized FB is much more than that. It’s a threat to our civility and possibly our democracy.”

He went on: “But why should FB change if we all continue to check in multiple times a day to see an adorable photo of a monkey nursing a kitten? The only motivation for FB to fix its problems is if we stop looking. So I’m off. At least until it’s fixed.”

I don’t really know if it can be fixed, but I know I can’t do completely without it. The one thing I can change is to limit how I use Facebook.

If I use it simply to post my work and that of my colleagues, or to help me discover information for a column, that feels good — like me using Facebook, rather than being used by Facebook.

That, in turn, should leave a lot more time for real life outside the confines of a screen.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com

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