In December 2017, ex-Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said:
“[one] may not realize it, but [their] behaviours are being programmed.”
There is no way around it; Facebook is very popular. It has over 2 billion users and 1.2 billion of those users use it every day. Of all the social media behemoths, Facebook is by far the largest and the most influential. With this in mind, one must ask themselves: how dangerous is Facebook?
Facebook and Privacy
The reasonable concern most people have with Facebook is privacy. Facebook is continually gathering a horrifying amount of data on its users. This is clear when one initially signs up for Facebook. The social networking giant solicits a trove of information including one’s name, place of residence, family members, relationship status, sex, gender, age, and the list goes on. More significantly, by design Facebook is programmed to save every like, share, comment, link click, friend request, and virtually every action that takes place on their platform.
Moreover, one can voluntarily share any status, upload any photo, or even let people know where they are at this very moment with their “check-in” feature. Experts advocate caution when sharing information on Facebook as these companies may sell one’s personal data to third parties for a profit. People may believe their privacy setting gives them protection from intrusive actions; however, if their friends do not have similar privacy settings to themselves, utter strangers can have access to their posts.
Facebook, Censorship and Terrorism
This public oversharing of data has not been nearly as controversial as have some of Facebook’s features. Facebook’s encrypted messages are increasingly being used by terrorists and for organised crime. In India in 2017, seven individuals were murdered after fake messages circulated around WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. Facebook Messenger is the most significant medium through which ISIS launches its recruitment initiatives. Even darker than these abuses of encrypted messaging is the terrifying use of Facebook Live to broadcast murders and suicides to unsuspecting viewers. Facebook claims it will crack down on extremist content, but this type of censoring has received its share of nasty criticism.
Facebook has repeatedly shown bias in its censorship. Claims of Facebook suppressing conservative news sites and overall newsfeed diversity have been levied against the company. Censorship is a scary thing, especially when people do not even know it is happening.
Facebook’s algorithms control what shows up in the revolutionary newsfeed, but this may not make it entirely neutral. This cannot be further from the truth. A devastating loophole exists, and it is called the confirmation bias. Facebook’s algorithms are created to show users more posts similar to ones they have already liked or interacted with in the past. Compounding on these algorithms is the fact that people tend to befriend people with similar views. So the typical Facebook consumer is fed content from friends that share similar political, social and economic perspectives on top of an algorithm that shows first those articles which the user would most likely interact with. The result is an echo chamber that reinforces one’s own views and demonizes their opponents.
These echo chambers can help explain why politics have become so polarised in the US and elsewhere. One is being sorted into ideological bubbles under the guise of civil discourse. As if this intellectual isolation were not bad enough, the echo chamber of similar views has caused multiple fake news stories to go viral on the social networking site. Facebook has a fake news problem. They are infamous for allowing anyone to purchase thousands of dollars worth of advertisements without scrutiny. Facebook admits that during the 2016 election campaign it allowed Russians tied to the Kremlin to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertisements to divide the country. This means foreign agents were able to influence millions of US voters.
Yet, all of this would not be a big deal if Facebook was not so psychologically impactful. Facebook undermines the human psyche by creating a social validation feedback loop. Since 2010, more than eight studies have determined that Facebook users follow similar patterns of drug addicts. They also determined that Facebook users tend to feel worse about themselves over time. This is because users of the site believe their friends, family and colleagues are leading better lives than themselves and are generally happier and more successful. This can be devastating to the sensitive and easily manipulated human ego. Facebook creates an unrealistic expectation of reality as users are only exposed to highlights and never the day-to-day of individuals.
Marriages, graduations, parties, new jobs, new pets, travel, sporting events, are all more likely to be displayed atop one’s newsfeed as they are likely to be engaged with more so than a typical selfie or status update. The reality is Facebook is here to stay, but would the world be better off without it?
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