So­cial me­dia plat­form with­out a gate­keeper lurks be­hind many so­cial ills

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - - NEWS -

FACEBOOK co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Zucker­berg gave ev­i­dence be­fore the US Congress this week.

His ap­pear­ance had been a long time com­ing. Late last year, when Facebook was sum­monsed to at­tend a US Se­nate in­quiry into elec­toral mal­prac­tice, Zucker­berg de­clined to ap­pear – in­stead he sent two of his un­der­lings. Their ap­pear­ance was not a suc­cess.

Spruik­ing the stan­dard com­pany line, they told sen­a­tors that Facebook took no re­spon­si­bil­ity for what it pub­lished be­cause it was “a mere tech­nol­ogy plat­form”, not a pub­lisher.

Se­na­tor Dianne Fe­in­stein did not buy this self-serv­ing non­sense, bluntly telling Zucker­berg’s min­ions: “You cre­ated these plat­forms and now they are be­ing mis­used. You have to be the ones to do some­thing about it, or we will.”

Since then, Facebook has been in­volved in a num­ber of scan­dals – the lat­est be­ing the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica data breach – and gov­ern­ments and cor­po­rate reg­u­la­tors in var­i­ous coun­tries have im­posed more rig­or­ous con­trols over Facebook and other multi­na­tional tech gi­ants.

In Aus­tralia, both the Aus­tralian Com­pe­ti­tion and Con­sumer Com­mis­sion and the Pri­vacy Com­mis-

THE CON­TRAR­IAN

sioner have launched in­quiries into Facebook, and in Europe, laws have been passed to make Facebook more ac­count­able for the ma­te­rial it pub­lishes. In the UK, as in Amer­ica, in­quiries into Facebook’s in­volve­ment in elec­toral ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties have been es­tab­lished.

In re­cent weeks, Facebook’s share price has fallen and users (in­clud­ing many celebri­ties) have de­serted it in droves. Ad­ver­tis­ers have threat­ened with­drawal, and some in­vestors have fore­shad­owed law­suits.

Hence Zucker­berg’s re­luc­tant, but nec­es­sary, per­sonal ap­pear­ance be­fore Congress this week. Only a ma­jor cri­sis could have forced him to emerge from Sil­i­con Val­ley.

De­spite be­ing coached by bat­ter­ies of lawyers and spin doc­tors prior to his ap­pear­ance, Zucker­berg ap­peared ill at ease. Be­neath all his suc­cess and enor­mous wealth, there is still much of the so­cially awk­ward com­puter geek about Zucker­berg.

Nev­er­the­less, he made ap­pro­pri­ate apolo­gies for past Facebook trans­gres­sions; promised to in­tro­duce far­reach­ing re­forms to the way Facebook op­er­ates; and even ac­cepted (in the­ory) that some US Gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion may be jus­ti­fied. These were all nec­es­sary con­ces­sions.

Zucker­berg main­tained, how­ever, that Facebook’s ba­sic busi­ness model was both sound and eth­i­cal, and re­jected sug­ges­tions that, by def­i­ni­tion, it in­volved on­go­ing mass sur­veil­lance and the sale of pri­vate data to ad­ver­tis­ers for sub­stan­tial profits.

When con­fronted with spe­cific ques­tions about the way Facebook op­er­ated – for ex­am­ple, whether it mon­i­tored non-Facebook users when they were us­ing the in­ter­net (known as “cross track­ing”) – Zucker­berg feigned ig­no­rance and/or robot­i­cally re­peated the mantra, “I’ll have my team get back to you on that”.

In­ter­est­ingly, Zucker­berg also fore­shad­owed the cre­ation of a user­pays ver­sion of Facebook, thereby im­plic­itly ad­mit­ting that the cur­rent free ver­sion was un­sus­tain­able if its pub­lished con­tent had to be prop­erly vet­ted.

It was a su­per­fi­cially im­pres­sive per­for­mance by Zucker­berg (pic­tured), but whether the funda- men­tal re­forms he promised will be im­ple­mented re­mains to be seen.

As Se­na­tor John Thune point­edly asked: “Af­ter more than a decade of prom­ises … why should we trust Facebook to make the nec­es­sary changes?”

Congress’s ques­tion­ing of Zucker­berg fo­cused on Facebook’s com­plic­ity in ques­tion­able elec­toral prac­tices and pri­vacy breaches but these are only two of the ob­jec­tion­able con­se­quences of the com­pany’s op­er­a­tions. Oth­ers in­clude: 1. Facebook, in con­junc­tion with Google, has re­fash­ioned mod­ern jour­nal­ism by si­phon­ing bil­lions of advertising dol­lars away from main­stream pub­lish­ers. As a con­se­quence, qual­ity (and espe­cially in­ves­tiga­tive) jour­nal­ism, which is ex­pen­sive, has suf­fered. 2. Facebook has changed the way peo­ple in­ter­act so­cially by re­plac­ing gen­uine hu­man con­tact with vir­tual con­nec­tions that en­cour­age self­ish­ness, nar­cis­sism and anti-so­cial be­hav­iour. Many Facebook users are in­ca­pable of en­gag­ing in face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions, and good man­ners have dis­ap­peared. Bul­ly­ing and so­called “hate speech” are now com­mon modes of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. The con­se­quences of this change can be seen in ex­e­crable re­al­ity tele­vi­sion pro­grams like Mar­ried at First Sight. 3. Facebook has stripped away all ves­tiges of pri­vacy from its users, and the ad­verse psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of this have been noted in a num­ber of re­cent stud­ies. Peo­ple need a pri­vate realm, and liv­ing in a vir­tual re­al­ity where ev­ery­thing that one does is posted on Facebook is psy­cho­log­i­cally de­bil­i­tat­ing. 4. Facebook, in con­junc­tion with Google, has caused a “dumb­ing down” of pop­u­lar cul­ture. Many mil­len­ni­als are now un­able to read a book and have lost the de­sire to do so. Many Facebook users are un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween fake news and real news, and ra­tio­nal public de­bate is rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing.

None of the above is­sues were raised di­rectly in Congress this week, but they are now re­ceiv­ing wide­spread at­ten­tion from com­men­ta­tors and aca­demics in the wake of Facebook’s re­cent scan­dals.

Hope­fully this week’s grilling of Zucker­berg in Congress will lead to even more rig­or­ous and wide-rang­ing crit­i­cal scru­tiny of the per­ni­cious ef­fects that flow from the ac­tiv­i­ties of tech gi­ants like Facebook. Gra­ham Hryce is a jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor

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