The founding promise of Facebook — of connecting friends old and new in expanding social networks — has turned to rot.
The evidence of its deterioration presents itself so regularly that it’s unclear if Facebook can be salvaged.
For me, it’s not just that Facebook spreads the pervasive negativity and divisiveness of the current era. It’s not just the conspiracy theories and made-up news Facebook allows to be published. It’s not just the irresponsibility of a company that undermines the news business while denying it is a media company. It’s also how Facebook affects me that I don’t like.
And it matters because, though young people tend to prefer other social-media sites, Facebook remains by far the dominant one across our society.
A couple of recent events brought home Facebook’s fundamental flaws for me.
After the massacre in Las Vegas, Facebook was replete with conspiracy theories, of what the “MSM” (mainstream media) isn’t telling the public about the shooting spree’s “real” circumstances. Suspect Stephen Paddock was a patsy, people said. There were multiple shooters. It was an inside job by the government to force Americans to give up their freedoms.
They were the same conspiracy theories that always crop up after mass shootings, but they are given a platform and broader audience by a media company that refuses to behave like one by standards of minimal truthfulness or decency.
The problems aren’t just national but local as well, and occur regularly.
We all may know about the story of Cup It Up, the Tucson restaurant whose owners posted a long Facebook screed saying what political positions they support, what they oppose, and that they will no longer televise NFL games because some players kneel during the national anthem. The story revealed part of Facebook’s dark underbelly.
The original post was a stupid move on the owners’ part, unless they wanted to sabotage their own business. And it had predictable results: Since the post supported pro-Trump Republican positions, anti-Trump people on Facebook posted and reposted the owners’ original message, telling their friends to boycott the business.
Over the weekend, the owners told my colleague Cathalena Burch they had so many calls and even threats related to the original post that they were closing the business. That alone was an unfortunate result of the original post and the mob reaction.
Then came the counter-reaction. The online blog site Arizona Daily Independent ran a story about Cup It Up focusing blame on one Tucson resident, Zaira Livier, for the restaurant’s closure. The site’s radio ally James T. Harris picked up the blame game on Facebook and his radio show. Why they picked on Livier is unclear, since dozens if not hundreds of other Tucsonans on Facebook called for a boycott of the restaurant over the owners’ original post. But she is a green-card-holding Mexican immigrant and a passionate leftist.
As anyone who has engaged in debates online would expect, with Harris’ stirring of the mob, Livier’s own Facebook message box began filling with angry screeds, some of them threatening. That culminated in recent days with two messages that contained images of her son. The words weren’t directly threatening, but anyone who sends a parent a photo of that parent’s child is deliberately causing intense distress. It’s antisocial behavior.
But that’s how Facebook works these days. It gives people an outlet for their worst instincts, which are sometimes followed by mob reactions, often split along pro- and anti-Trump lines.
And that’s not the deepest part of the Facebook problem.
The worst part is symbolized by the misuse of the platform to spread lies and propaganda during the 2016 election campaign. Plenty of American liars invented rumors about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and gullible friends gobbled them up and spread them all. But most amazing to me was how the Russian disinformation campaign spotted the weakness of Facebook and its users, and exploited it.
Russian government entities set up many pages that mimicked the positions and rhetoric of Trump supporters. The page called Secured Borders, for example, made posts along these lines:
“I want my country back. They can call me xenophobe or racist I don’t care – I just want all 20 million of illegals to vacate America and never go back! I want corrupt political whores like Obama or Ryan or Pelosi or Rahm to be held accountable for their despicable crimes committed against American people in order to harbor and appease illegal aliens.”
The syntax sounds suspiciously like that of someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language, but it didn’t matter. Angry Americans passed on these and other posts by Russian trolls, which had a potential reach in the millions.
They stirred up public anger over exaggerated claims of rapes by refugees in Twin Falls, Idaho, for example, and created real-life political demonstrations in Texas by supporters of that state’s secession from the USA.
It’s particularly infuriating to realize that it was people in another country, posing as Americans, trying to whip up Americans’ anger with these posts. But it’s users’ fault that they believed the messages. And worse is that Facebook took money to spread these messages around.
The final insult: Facebook is making ad money that might otherwise be made by actual news organizations, while Facebook refuses to police its site adequately for misinformation and falsehoods. Because users unwittingly provide Facebook with so much valuable data about themselves, the company can sell ads targeted to extremely specific demographic niches, a function that news organizations can’t perform since they aren’t social-media platforms.
But while traditional news organizations try to uphold a standard of truthfulness and responsibility for their content, Facebook, a company worth $500 billion, denies that responsibility by saying it is not a “media” company. Only recently has it made real efforts at policing fake news on its platform.
Facebook is, of course, a media company, though poorly run in that regard. And as a social platform, it brings out the worst in so many people, including me.
Since the Las Vegas massacre, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly angry as I read things people post, lashing out in comments. It’s not the person I want to be, or at least not in spontaneous online posts. If I’m going to lash out, I have a newspaper column to use.
So for all these reasons — because Facebook is a cesspool of division, because the company undermines my industry, and because it refuses to take adequate responsibility for its role in society — I’m deactivating my account for now. Will this be a one-day protest or a long-term policy? I don’t know.
But the company needs to know its product is fundamentally flawed and a source of social destruction, far from its founding vision of bringing people together.