Last week, I decided, on a whim, to listen to the Alex Jones Show (There’s a war on for your mind!). Texan’s favourite son (who, on the scale of desirable export, comes somewhere between Halliburton and Texas Chainsaw Massacres) wasn’t on. Instead, his replacement that night was lambasting ‘the Facebook’ for trying to get parents to sign their kids on. Of course, there was a thick layer of tinfoil slopped on top, but it really is a disturbing truth that Facebook (and other platform media) manage to make people who sell snake oil for a living look sensible (the excellent Zeynep Tufecki wrote an article on Mark Zuckerberg’s defence that annoying practically everyone was a feature, not a bug).
Few companies would brazenly admit that a study did show that using their service made people unhappier – and then make the claim that the problem was not with the technology, but instead with how they use it. That was Facebook’s latest ploy, in a blog post which referenced a recent Yale study which claims to show that passive consumption (i.e. scrolling through your newsfeed) makes you unhappy, but which attempted to deflect this with other research which claims that more active behaviour, like direct messaging, had the opposite effect. All science aside, the piece felt distinctly tone-deaf: a philosophical posing, rather than anything concrete.
It wouldn’t be the first time the company had made itself the target of ridicule and contempt for its heavy-handed behaviour. Zuckerberg’s immediate declaration after the 2016 American election, that misinformation and junk news like the sort which bombarded swing states throughout that period could have had no discernible impact, was readily mocked. A year later, he walked back this comment; at the same time, it became clear that to at least some extent, Russia had been involved in buying ads from Facebook. That’s not to mention the revelation that the social media platform had allowed targeted ads for anti-Semitic and other bigoted ideologies.
Facebook can get away this because in spite of growing competitors, years of bad publicity, and falling market share, it still has the sheer numbers of users. Leave it, even temporarily, and you lose out on a space for mundane but key fixtures such as events and birthdays. The social cost of going ‘off the Facebook grid’ is, admittedly, mitigated by the plethora of alternative systems, but that doesn’t always mean everything is posted everywhere. Of course, as newer generations come online, they may reject the Facebook mantle in favour of platforms like Snapchat, whose affordances (based around the idea of ephemerality) do not offer so much space for passive consumption. But for the time being, we seem to be stuck with Facebook, warts and all: a company increasingly disliked by its user base, even as the more time you spend on it, the more valuable it becomes as a social tool.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Facebook’s core values are a major part of the issue, I’d argue: the kind of Silicon Valley libertarianism, which views criticism of over-reaching features as attempts to stifle creativity, and which has total belief in itself. There’s a reason that a common enough internet joke is that Mark Zuckerberg is an alien or a robot: the sense of disdain for users, and their interests and privacy, is almost palpable.
Rather than putting out posts which try and defend Facebook’s apparent promotion of damaging users’ mental health, the service could offer more limited models, or ways in which to actually limit people’s exposure to passive content. It could act faster, when it becomes clear that misinformation is being spread through its adverts; it could also be pre-emptive in cutting down on language used by those attempting to sow dissent and hatred.
It would come at a cost to advertising revenue, most likely: the key lifeline which keeps the company afloat. But it would offer a chance for it to move out of the PR rut it has fallen into, and perhaps start to retake market share. Being ethical doesn’t always pay off immediately; being unethical is rarely healthy in the long run.