how do you solve a problem like facebook?
Facebook is not having its best month ever. It’s vilified by the wealthy first world nations critical to its existence as the reaper of democracy and saboteur of civilized society. Researchers keep publishing studies showing its outsized role in undermining vaccination campaigns and public health measures while driving users into the arms of actual terrorists and fascists. Personal data for 1.5 billion people on the platform is now for sale on the dark web. A whistleblower alleging that executives ignore cataclysmic problems for the sake of revenues rocked Congress. And it managed to mess up an update so badly, employees had to break into their own data centers to bring Facebook’s constellation of services and apps back online to the sad groans of millions openly celebrating the worldwide outage.
On top of all that, Facebook is a crucial source of potential exploits for hackers and a security migrane for companies around the world. All of those cutesy quizzes awfully interested in your birthplace, childhood friends, and other factoids that sound suspiciously like security questions for banking, enterprise, and medical apps are a treasure trove of information for hackers now able to guess and reset passwords to corporate portals, bank accounts, and cloud storage. And even when everything does work as intended, moderating the platform is a PTSD-inducing mess that all too often falls to poorly paid contractors across the world being constantly exposed to a barrage of hate, gore, and child porn.
Meanwhile, as experts and moderators plead with the sociopathic leadership to fix glaring and increasingly catastrophic problems, the company works against them by prioritizing screen time by any means possible, even if it’s flooding timelines with conspiracy theories and outrage bait from fascists, bigots, and culture war grifters. Not only are they not concerned, they built a full blown AI framework to supercharge the process. Sure, Facebook isn’t necessarily creating hate and lies as if it’s an ad-riddled clickbait content farm, but it definitely amplifies the worst, most toxic cesspools of humanity, then sits back and collects cash for keeping millions of enraged eyeballs on the site even after publicly fueling real world violence and chaos.
when evil, incompetence, and amorality collide
While it’s tempting to picture Facebook as just plain evil, the reality is perhaps even worse. In full context, the company comes off as incompetent and amoral, a noxious mix of that classic Silicon Valley arrogance and solipsistic carelessness. Yes, they effectively broke the internet when they opened the platform to people who couldn’t handle it to appease investors, but at the time, one could argue we had no idea what would happen because modern social media was so new. However, that was in 2006 and in the decade since, it was all too clear that very bad things were happening, and we were on a really nasty, disturbing downward spiral. Again and again, Facebook did the absolute minimum at best, and even then, only after the fact.
Given all that, it’s tempting to want to shut down the platform, dismantle all of its data centers, melt its servers, and salt the ground its HQ stood on, but there are two important questions to settle first. First, can we? Second, should we? The two questions are quite closely related since they orbit the core problem with social media as it exists today. Certainly, Facebook is a terrible actor and if the stars align one day, governments may order it to shut down permanently, send each user an external drive with all their data, and deploy law enforcement agents to ensure compliance in their nations. But not every country will ban it and it could still survive, buying its way into existence with bribes and by selling disinformation campaigns to autocrats.
As noted, while Facebook may be profiting from divisive, hateful, lie-filled outrage fuel, it’s not actually creating it. Its users are, and by feverishly consuming it, they encourage the company to keep them hyperventilating in rage and despair. In a way, Zuckerberg is just giving the public what it wants, in much the same way Walter White was just using his advanced knowledge of chemistry to fulfil a lucrative market demand. While we want to rightfully blame his creation for making the world a worse place, by far the most disturbing revelation about social media is that it’s very much a product of the human id, and by leaning too far into the genteel, utopian ideas about the internet we’ve given the worst of us a louder voice than ever.
how utopias die, and why they need to
Today, we’ve largely achieved the dream of internet pioneers who wanted us to reach out and connect with people across the world, certain that we’ll get a better perspective and learn how to overcome our differences through civilized debate and discussion. Unfortunately, like battle plans, utopian ideals rarely survive first contact with the enemy. Over the past two decades, we’ve realized that a disturbingly large number of people are just awful, ranging from sad and irritating edge lords to outright monsters who fill us with righteous fury. Just talk to the many moderators who have to navigate a non-stop torrent of child abuse, animal torture, recorded suicide, murder, terrorist violence, and revenge porn.
As painful as it may be to admit, and as politically unpopular as it may be to say, the real issue with social media is people. Some of us are just lost causes who enjoy doling out pain, misery, fear, and lies. If we don’t acknowledge that and proceed accordingly, we could burn Facebook to the ground just to face the same problem in a few years. The real debate we’re having isn’t just about one company, but about how to accept the end of tech utopianism and the sunny rah-rah optimism of the 1990s. Facebook will need to be hit hard with regulation and punitive measures that will make its business model a liability to start re-framing technology as a tool, not our savior. And if Facebook can’t survive the new rules, so be it.
But reform won’t be easy either. We actually need recommendation algorithms to navigate all the content available to us today. We need to ban the sale of personal data to advertisers, but some users will still want to get ads for things they actually want to buy, so we need to design a mechanism that would allow for a simple, yet secure opt in/opt out process. We’ll also need to figure out how to govern the collection of communication metadata to prevent abuse, come up with concrete standards for what the underlying tools should and shouldn’t be able to do, and a means to enforce them. In short, we will need to completely rethink the foundations of today’s web. Otherwise, we’ll just keep spiraling out of control into a brand new dark age.