Facebook’s Doomsday Fantasy

Facebook has never had a shortage of critics. Its faults are in its DNA by design, its seeming missteps made on purpose. But the detractors of the ad-hawking, privacy-invading, responsibility-shirking, misinformation-disseminating business are getting louder and more powerful. They include governments who want to split up the company.

Adrienne LaFrance of The Atlantic is not a new critic. But she recently presented a new takedown of Facebook, arguing that the combination of its algorithmic nature and its size make it a Doomsday Machine. It’s a scintillating perspective. But I finished reading it with one gripe: I think it overplays Facebook’s role in our (online) lives, or underplays our own. Or both. Here’s how:

  1. Yes, Facebook is most everywhere, but it’s not only not the go-to social media platform for teens, it’s seeing usage shrink among that demographic. Meanwhile, only 10% of the company’s users are in North America, and yet there are also whole segments of the world who don’t have access to it – and it’s arguable that their home-grown, heavily-censored, and heavily-manipulated platforms are more dangerous.
  2. The company’s ad model has a major Achilles heal. Most ads aren’t seen by people, and the efficacy of those that are seen are wildly overstated. This is a bubble that could take Facebook and its ilk down a few notches.
  3. Facebook’s human users (and there lots of non-human ones) are free-thinking agents who should be able to tell truth from fiction. To the extent they’re not is a fault of our education systems. That goes for our (intentional?) failure to teach critical thinking, and in our inability to recognize that many of us have matured in a social media world but not adapted our schools to teach ourselves how to live in it.
  4. LaFrance laments the plight of the Facebook moderators, those people the company hires to scan for and flag offensive material. Yes, if Facebook were guided by principles it would manage this aspect of its business at greater scale and more seriously. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the offensive material is posted by people, it is a record of offensive and violent behavior committed by people, and once online it is “enjoyed” by an audience of people. There are not only people who do bad things. There are bad people.

By all means, hold Facebook to account. But let’s not forget our own responsibilities.