Social media platform without a gatekeeper lurks behind many social ills
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-
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