The Facebook Fiasco
And why I won't be quitting.
On Sunday, October 3, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugan told ‘60 Minutes’ anchor, Scott Pelley, “Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they'll click on less ads, they'll make less money”.
She based her comments on the tens of thousands of pages she copied while she worked at Facebook, knowing if she ever came forward she would need iron-clad proof of the secret goings-on of a company known to turn a blind eye to safety and security if they threaten to impact the bottom line.
She went on to talk about the many real instances of young people, especially young girls, who are harmed on Facebook’s sites by the insidious shaming and rage against anyone who might choose to look or act differently. She didn’t back down when she was asked if it could happen without Mark Zuckerberg, the head honcho, knowing about it. No, she said, it could not. (Zuckerberg, you should know, disagrees.)
It was the beginning of the shit hitting the fan, the preface to Monday’s congressional hearing on Facebook practices. Six more hours of compelling testimony (not quite true; much of it was taken up with the usual political grandstanding by committee members speechifying rather than asking legit questions) gave Haugans a chance to solidify her argument: that the entire Facebook company (FB, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.) needs to be regulated and forced to change its ways.
While all of it was compelling and often enraging, no entity was more enraged by it than Twitter. Often it’s what I like best about Twitter—its call to action when the powerless are attacked. What I like least about it happened again: there weren’t just calls for the entire country to quit Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the most vocal were demanding it—shaming anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t see the need to boycott the entire company.
So I weighed in:
Ramona Grigg on Twitter: "I'm at the point where I'm ready to unfollow anyone who tweets and retweets "Why are you still on Facebook?" 1st, none of your business. 2nd, we don't all use FB the same way. It's useful to some of us. We can be angry over practices w/o quitting. 3rd, none of your business." / Twitter
It brought some interesting comments, including a link to Stonekettle’s blog on the subject. (Stonekettle is a blogger with a huge following on Twitter. He’s known for his no nonsense, no bullshit responses to the news and views of the day.) Whatever I might have wanted to say here about why I won’t be quitting—he said it better.
It's not just old people.
It's not just disabled people and the shut-ins.
It's not just those who use social media to keep in contact with loved ones deployed overseas and who have family far away.
It's not just the introverts or those with crippling social anxiety.
It's not just those who have reason to hide their identity in the real world for fear of violence and hate and who without social media would have no social interaction where they could be themselves.
It's not just those who find joy in a larger world they would have never known outside of an online global community of people who share their interests -- like birds.
It's not just people who have built businesses and a living around these platforms.
It's not just about writing letters or using a phone or reading a book or going outside to meet people.
It's all of those things and much, much more.
And if you can't see that, then that says a hell of a lot more about your lack of empathy and imagination than it does about those who use Facebook.
Can we do better? Can we regulate these companies? Can we limit the power of those like Zuckerberg and Facebook? Can we prevent these platforms from becoming weapons aimed at the head of our Republic? And can we do it without marginalizing those who need it most?
Of course we can.
But burning it all down isn't how you do any of that.
By the way, I forgot to mention—On Monday, as the hearing was taking place, as if that wasn’t dramatic enough, Facebook went dark for a long, long six hours. Went wonky first, then just disappeared. Was it on purpose, to show how necessary the Facebook presence really is? Was it an accident? Were they hacked? We would know the reason why if Facebook wasn’t so secretive. We still don’t know for sure.
It’s no secret Mark Zuckerberg keeps secrets at Facebook. He’s been hauled before committees many times, always to explain what goes on there and why he shouldn’t be regulated. Each time he holds his cards close to his chest and refuses to show them. It’s infuriating. So is his wealth. He lost seven billion dollars when Facebook crashed, but he won’t be going on welfare. It’s a drop in the bucket for him.
But there’s that thing about Facebook and what it means to ordinary citizens: it’s a lifeline for many, a social outlet, the closest thing to a community many people have available to them. It’s a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, as we all found during the COVID shutdown.
But it’s more than that. For example: after looking long and hard everywhere else, calling every health service they could think of, my daughters both finally found a place to get their COVID vaccinations through a volunteer Facebook group called ‘Vaccination Hunters’. They sought out and reported on sites that became available, often just minutes after spots on those sites opened up. It was pretty amazing, but it wouldn’t have happened without Facebook’s reach.
I live on an island. We depend on our two ferries all year long, but now and then wind, weather, or ferry repairs cause one or both to slow or shut down. We islanders need to know that, and the ferry system keeps us informed via Facebook.
Those of us living in the boonies use local Facebook marketplaces to buy and sell goods. Local small businesses can advertise for free on Facebook. Most communities have a Facebook page. Some pages are strictly nostalgic—”Remember when…?”
We build communities on Facebook. Children get their Luddite parents to use it to keep in touch. We find old friends via Facebook but we can keep our pages as private as we want to. There are those times when FB users are hacked but we can avoid that, too, by not falling for every innocent-looking question or intelligence game. We’re not required to play along with everything Facebook offers—and often what it offers is nefarious and dangerous. We have choices.
So, no, I won’t be quitting Facebook, but I’ll be working to get Zuckerberg, et al, to mind their manners and respect the privacy and the needs of their bread and butter. Cut out the bad guys. Stop cheating. Stop lying. Be what you say you’re going to be. We’re on to you now and we’ll be watching. We have a stake in this, too.