Let’s turn back the clock. It’s 2004 – the year of Facebook’s creation. Things are simple – most people don’t know the meaning of the word algorithm. They don’t understand the concept of a profile picture. And they certainly don’t worry about their online identity.
Cue Mark Zuckerberg and co, creating a platform called FaceMash (a site for comparing two female students’ photos to decide who was more attractive) while studying at Harvard University. The site attracted 450 visitors and 22,000 photo-views in its first 4 hours online but was shut down a few days later for breaching campus rules. Nevertheless, the spark had flown – within a year ‘TheFacebook’ was born, and well, you know the rest.
Facebook’s success lies in Zuckerberg’s ability to find a way to harness both our narcissism and our inherent sociality: Facebook allows the creation of a perfectly formed, unflawed online identity, through which we can connect with vast networks of people.
I would argue even Zuckerberg himself had no idea at its advent what Facebook would become. As Jia Tolentino describes in her 2019 book Trick Mirror: “What began as a way for Zuckerberg to harness collegiate misogyny and self-interest has become the fuel for our whole contemporary nightmare.”
How were we to know?
I think I speak for the majority of my generation in saying that when I eagerly joined Facebook at the advent of my 13th birthday in 2010, I had no idea what I was really signing up to. It has taken a decade before any real concerns about the practices of Facebook’s data mining and cultural manipulation have arisen throughout the population.
Through a combination of scandals (such as Cambridge Analytica in 2018) and insightful Netflix documentaries – namely The Great Hack (2019) and, most recently, The Social Dilemma (2020) – we have begun to understand how, exactly, these platforms operate and succeed in generating enormous amounts of profit. Put deftly, ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’. A fact which may not come as a surprise to many now, but which often does not inhibit our use of these platforms, is that we are in fact the commodity being sold.
Facebook wants us to give as much of our lives as possible to its platforms (this includes Instagram) – as highlighted by Tristan Harris, an ex design ethicist at Google: “social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.” We unknowingly bought into a product and a service which has, in turn, harnessed our attention and our data to begin to manipulate the very information we read, and even our behaviour.
Tolentino describes how “Facebook has outright deceived the public on many occasions: for one, it reportedly inflated viewer statistics for its videos by up to 900 per cent, causing nearly every media company to shift its own strategy – and lay off workers – to reflect a Facebook profit strategy that didn’t exist.” We were scammed into using a platform without any real disclosure of the consequences – and now we’re hooked.
Can’t put your phone down? There’s a reason for this. The platform is designed to keep you hooked, to keep you scrolling. The endless scroll was invented for a reason, specific notifications are chosen to get you to open the app – as vocalised by Edward Tufte in The Social Dilemma: “there are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
So, what are the consequences?
Now the 4th richest man in the world (yes, really), Zuckerberg essentially controls a nation-state. According to OFCOM, as of 2019 half of the population now rely on social media platforms for news consumption.
When you consider that Facebook is able to target, on behalf of another corporation, a specific demographic with a specific story, this is truly terrifying. Even if you choose to remove yourself from social media, you still live in the world it is creating.
Political elections can (some would argue) be swung through targeted Facebook campaigns – Cambridge Analytica used illegally harvested data to predominantly be used for political advertising, including the Trump campaign (go figure). According to Jaron Lanier (founder of VPL research) interviewed in The Social Dilemma, it is “the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behaviour and perception that is the product,” and this sort of manipulation is precisely what Facebook offers to its advertisers.
Social media platforms are also increasingly becoming hateful and reactive environments. As explored by Pandora Sykes in her essay collection, the internet is a “polarisation accelerant.” It is “an attention economy which runs on fury and rewards outrage with eyeballs.” Visceral and hateful speech gets airtime, and ridiculously fake news gets circulated – we all act and speak before we think. Extremist groups, on both sides of the political spectrum, are on the rise as reactive content is spread and echo chambers emerge, an algorithm deciding that you will only wish to engage with people who think just like you. Everybody picks their side, and they stay firmly within it – the public sphere, a place of rational debate and productive conversation, becomes defunct.
As documentaries like The Social Dilemma clearly demonstrate, social media corporations, the largest of which is Facebook, are dangerous beasts. It is too late to put this beast back in the cage, but this does not mean we are helpless. The key to creating a culture which isn’t founded on manipulation is through an informed effort to understand precisely how these sites operate.
I still believe social media can be harnessed as a positive tool, but total awareness is necessary. Question what you see and realise who might want you to see this. Search out platforms for a political debate – sites such as https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/ offer platforms for rational political debate. Address your addiction (if you say you don’t have one, you’re probably lying) – turn off notifications, have social media free days, and be conscious of your emotions after interactions with these applications.
We must make a conscious effort to escape from the trap we were all scammed into, or the real societal consequences could be too dire to contemplate.