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Should We All Quit Facebook?

September 13, 2020

mark zuckerberg

Netflix has just released the new documentary The Social Dilemma by Jeff Orlowski in which a series of Silicon Valley apostates argue that social media like Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc. have effectively changed human behavior. The result, they argue, is increased anxiety, anomie, distrust, fear, social isolation, and political polarization which threaten democracy and exacerbate economic inequality throughout the world. These are the unintended consequences of social media platforms designed to be incredibly efficient money-making machines that manipulate users by predicting our responses with uncanny precision. We are the product they are selling.

It’s a compelling argument because we all see the evidence everywhere we look. Who hasn’t had the experience of doing a Google search and seeing a related ad pop up on our Facebook feed within seconds? Why do we see posts from the same limited number of people and little else? Because the algorithms used by social media know what we want to see and serve it up specifically tailored to us relentlessly. When we do a Google search, the results it delivers depend on the data Google has on us, and Google knows pretty much everything about us.  If social media is where we go for our information, then all we get is we want to hear. The system is both much more subtle and more complex, but this gets to the general idea. 

Facebook and the others sell us to political manipulators who bombard us with material exquisitely crafted to push our buttons. That’s what happened in 2016 (see another excellent documentary The Great Hack), and they have only gotten better at it since then.  The Social Dilemma focuses mostly on Facebook, perhaps because it’s the biggest and Mark Zuckerberg is so easy to despise, but all of the platforms are doing essentially the same thing. For my money, Twitter is the most pernicious of all, and I avoid it like the plague. 

I was among the last people on the planet to open a Facebook account. My concern then (and still now) was with the risk it posed for identity theft. I had long conversations with a dear friend years ago who argued that Facebook was a way to have a real dialogue with people all over the country on critical issues. I was skeptical about that then. Then Trump got elected, and I wanted to do what I could to raise the alarm about what I was seeing. So I succumbed in hopes that Facebook would be a medium for amplifying that message. Looking back, I think both my friend and I were naive. We didn’t persuade anyone who wasn’t already persuaded. We just got locked into a feedback loop of people with similar opinions. I now understand at a personal level just how addictive it is. We are the ones being manipulated. 

Recently, Facebook has the rep of being a platform for old folks, though the available demographic statistics don’t bear that out. (The biggest age cohort for FB users remains 25-34 year-olds. Some 88% of online users age 18-29 are on FB, versus 62% of online seniors 65+ and 72% age 50-64.) The company has lately taken a few token steps to limit its complicity in spreading disinformation, but continues to resist any systemic changes that might make a real difference. Like other social media platforms, their business model requires that. 

So should we abandon Facebook now? Several of my friends have done that already and others have told me they’re considering it. How much is it worth to you? What do you really get out of it? Do you really need it to keep in touch with friends and family? Or is it something else? And how do you weigh that against the harm that it does to society? If you quit Facebook, are you also going to leave Instagram and WhatsApp, which Facebook owns? Are you going to quit Google? Is that even possible? Are we all too addicted to these private companies to stop supporting them?  Honestly, I don’t know what I think at this point.

But by all means watch The Social Dilemma. And, of course, Netflix will then use that data to suggest other content that you might like…

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