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Hell in a handcart

Facebook doesn’t want to be evil, but it is

This, by Nikhil Sonnad, is a superb analysis of what’s wrong with Facebook and why it’s sending the world to hell in a handcart. Much of it applies equally to Twitter.

Sonnad begins with the story of Antonio Perkins, who was shot dead as he filmed a Facebook video.

Although his death is tragic, the video does not violate the company’s abstruse community standards, as it does not “glorify violence” or “celebrate the suffering or humiliation of others.” And leaving it up means more people will connect to Perkins, and to Facebook, so the video stays. It does have a million views, after all.

The problem is that Facebook doesn’t see people as people. We’re just data.

…the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to “people” but to “users,” collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

There are certain things you do not in good conscience do to humans. To data, you can do whatever you like.

By this reading, Mark Zuckerberg is a modern-day Victor Frankenstein. He’s created a monster and has no idea how to control it, if controlling it is even possible any more.

John Naughton makes the same point in The Guardian.

 This all became evident last week in a revealing interview the Facebook boss gave to the tech journalist Kara Swisher. The conversation covered a lot of ground but included a few key exchanges that spoke volumes about Zuckerberg’s inability to grasp the scale of the problems that his creature now poses for society.

…I can see only three explanations for it. One is that Zuckerberg is a sociopath, who wants to have as much content – objectionable or banal – available to maximise user engagement (and therefore revenues), regardless of the societal consequences. A second is that Facebook is now so large that he sees himself as a kind of governor with quasi-constitutional responsibilities for protecting free speech. This is delusional: Facebook is a company, not a democracy. Or third – and most probably – he is scared witless of being accused of being “biased” in the polarised hysteria that now grips American (and indeed British) politics.

Sonnad again:

Facebook’s value system has diverged from that of the rest of society—the result of its myopic focus on connecting everyone however possible, consequences be damned.

With that in mind, the thread running through Facebook’s numerous public-relations disasters starts to become clear. Its continued dismissal of activists from Sri Lanka and Myanmar imploring it to do something about incitements of violence. Its refusing to remove material that calls the Sandy Hook massacre a “hoax” and threatens the parents of murdered children. Its misleading language on privacy and data-collection practices.

Facebook seems to be blind to the possibility that it could be used for ill.

That blindness is already having terrible consequences. For example, the violence in Myanmar that  Sonnad refers to is attempted genocide. The UN human rights chief there, Markuzi Darusman, told reporters that social media had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.” There are many individual tragedies too, such as people driven to suicide by howling online mobs. And of course social media has been fundamental in the rise of the far right and associated violence.

We’re going to look back on this social media age with horror.