Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Facebook, fake news, and the impact on our children: A hard lesson learned

Many years ago, I laughed when The Onion parodied a TV talk show discussing Facebook as if it were a CIA-devised surveillance and pacification tool.



No one is laughing anymore. In the past several years, and especially after the 2016 U.S. election, people have come to realize that Facebook is not just a tool to connect with friends, neighbors, and family members. It's one of the most powerful communication platforms ever devised, and like other platforms before it, has the ability to propogate false information on a massive scale. Unlike earlier platforms, however, Facebook's masters have handed over control to other parties, given these parties pretty much an open pass to say and share whatever they want, and "automated" account oversight and discussion.

The "Houston, we have a problem" moment came right after the election. That's when Zuckerberg let loose this gem:
"The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea."

Until that point, I naively assumed the company knew how its platform was being used, and had safeguards in place to moderate abuse and scammy behavior ... not just in the United States, but in other countries, where the potential outcomes can be far more serious. That's clearly not the case. (Among other things, Facebook contributed to the demonization of Rohingya in Myanmar, which morphed into ethnic cleansing).

In reality, this platform -- as well as YouTube, Twitter, etc. -- are being played like fiddles. The comment revealed that he did not realize what was going on, or totally underestimated how pervasive it is.

Sometimes it even seems Zuck wants to appease those who would rather use social media as a tool for spying and information control -- surely his charm offensives in China are paired with back-room discussions with Chinese companies and the Chinese government about partnerships and acquisitions, which would require Facebook to help authorities curtain discussion of sensitive topics and turn over the identities of people who dare to speak out against widespread nepotism and corruption, Tibetan occupation, the illegal occupation of islets in the South China Sea, and other sensitive topics that supposedly "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."  

The other thing that's going on is how we personally are impacted by this platform. I've been on since 2004 and still enjoy the opportunity to see what friends and relatives are up to. But the downside of the platform has really taken a toll. It's not just fake news or political stories favoring one group or another. This platform is optimized for outrage and obsessive use. What I see in my friends' feeds makes the early waves of viral games and chain-letters seem quaint now. I really worry how technology will affect our children - something that MIT's Sherry Turkle has been warning people about for decades but has only emerged into the public conciousness in recent years.

I think it's easy to say this is little different from the wake-up calls and inevitable transformations related to earlier forms of mass media (incidents involving "yellow journalism" in the 1800s, Leni Riefenstahl and Orson Welles in the 1930s, the impact of TV on youth in the 60s and 70s, debates over video games in the 1990s and 2000s) but I really feel we as a society are crossing into new, more dangerous territory with some of the new digital platforms. We are starting to see the long-term impact, and the future doesn't look good. 

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