HATE is a four-letter word I reserve for things I truly despise. In recent years, Facebook has sadly joined that club.
Facebook has experienced so much negative press attention that they recently rebranded as “Meta” in the sort of old PR move that disguises something to confuse users by giving it a new name. Most recently, they’ve started running ad spots meant to create the perception that they actually welcome government regulation and value user privacy. Give me a break.
I’ve been around social media since the early days and helped launch a competitive platform on a similar timeline to Facebook. When I watch the movie “The Social Network,” it brings back fond memories of a time when young tech-savvy guys fueled by beer and testosterone didn’t even know where our efforts would lead or whether we’d ever be able to monetize it, we just knew it was cool and fun.
In hindsight, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg found ways to make an obscene amount of money exploiting the human need for connection and the information we share to do that. Our society is worse off for it because of the ethical shortcuts taken along the way.
Zuckerberg didn’t invent social media. He just found clever ways to turn the users of his creation into the actual product and postpone inevitable obsoletion (remember MySpace?) by sinking Facebook’s tentacles into so many other parts of the internet that cutting ties involved too much effort. How many people simply use their Facebook login to get in other websites across the web?
The Facebook business model is based on offering its tools and services mostly for free to billions of users and then making money by allowing businesses to show those users advertising. At first, I enjoyed the idea of hyper-relevant advertising based on my interests, which mean less sitting through ads for products that I could care less about. Now, after years of constructing profiles with thousands of data points to cross reference, we are bombarded with advertising so on-the-nose that we wonder if our phones are listening in on our offline conversations with friends.
Together with Google, Facebook has gobbled up billions in the digital ad market, causing newspapers and magazines to close their doors and shut down forever.
This has happened while they’ve simultaneously functioned as parasites profiting off the labor of journalists and content creators whose careers they’ve destroyed. Then they have the audacity to insist that Facebook isn’t a publishing platform required to follow the same rules the traditional media are bound to. No, they get a pass from having to make sure that the information they distribute goes through a screening process to ensure truthfulness. When there’s no consequence for spreading lies, the truth becomes a moving target.
When Greed Took Charge
Things took a very dark turn when Facebook started compiling mountains of data of about its users and selling that information to some nefarious buyers. In a scandal built on deceptive practices, British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles, using that information to exploit prejudices with a flood of deceitful posts with disinformation strategically created to make them more persuadable to vote in a certain way. They not only collected information on users who consented to using an app but also the respondents’ Facebook friends, who did not consent.
For a given political campaign, each profile’s information suggested what type of advertisement would be most effective to persuade a particular person in a particular location for some political event. As a direct result of such practices, our society is now deeply divided, living in silos with alternate realities influenced by seemingly credible disinformation pushed in our news feeds.
I used to joke that the CIA must have created Facebook because millions of people willingly share their beliefs, whereabouts, activities, who they’re spending time with, and even updating their profile pics with new headshots for a central database. Some folks fail to recognize any irony in howling about conspiracy theories concerning tiny tracking microchips in vaccines while posting about them as they check in on Facebook using smartphones designed with the capability of tracking their every move.
Negative Impacts on Users and Society
Facebook purposely designs its platform so that users experience a dopamine rush of adrenaline while using it. That pleasurable sense of anticipation can be compared to a casino creating an atmosphere designed to provoke the pleasure centers of the brain so gamblers are prone to leave with emptied bank accounts. Today, when people first wake up and right before they lay down to sleep, their activities are dominating by checking Facebook. That’s very subtle by design.
What’s further annoying about Facebook is how lazy it has made people. Why actually read a news story if you can just hit that share button based on a misleading clickbait headline that reinforces your biases? And why send information about your event to the newspaper when you can simply post about it on your Facebook page; the whole world sees it there, right? Wrong!
Many people don’t realize that this is part of Facebook’s business model. They created a popular neighborhood where all of your friends would want to hang out, then they artificially raised your backyard fence so high that you had to pay $5 or $10 for many of those friends to actually see what you say or share. That’s called limiting “organic reach” to create incentive for you to pay them money. I worked for a marketing agency when they introduced this. Companies reacted angrily, but by then, it was suicide to abandon the platform. Besides, their platform so their rules.
Another thing I hate about Facebook is how arbitrary those rules can be. Many business owners pour hours into building up their pages, only to have Facebook pull the rug out from under them overnight because of some glitch in their algorithm or some obscure violation of site policy that was concealed in the fine print. As demonstrated by the recent outages, it is gambling to build a house on property that someone else owns, and no company should rely entirely on Facebook for an online presence. Especially one that young people are abandoning in massive numbers. You can’t expect them to consider Facebook cool when grandma is on there acting mildly racist. Zuckerberg can only buy so many up-and-coming competitors or steal their novel ideas for so long before he’s put to pasture for good.
Most users, I would predict, aren’t aware of how the sausage is made or they tend to underestimate the platform’s power to influence their behavior. Users need to educate themselves about the little tricks and systems that operate at a nearly subconscious level to influence them. The best defense is being aware that a company with billions of dollars to spend to ensure its survival and prosperity wants to exploit you.
Going Forward with Our Eyes Opened
Facebook has become so ubiquitous that it’s absurd for me to think one blog post will convince any readers to quit it. So deep is its reach that many of us are forced to continue using it despite wishing it would just die already so it can be replaced by something better.
The day of reckoning is coming when Zuckerberg’s greed will catch up to him and no Congressional testimony or name change will hide the stain of Facebook’s shame.