Oroville Mercury-Register

There’s no fixing Facebook — but you can leave it

- Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiheral­d. com.

Did anyone ever think of that? As a whistleblo­wer releases damning informatio­n, as Congress holds another hearing into the harm the company does, the implicit assumption is that the social-media giant can be reformed, that with the right combinatio­n of algorithmi­c tweaks and legislativ­e remedies, it can cease being a malevolent force. Even whistleblo­wer Frances Haugen says that her aim in giving a trove of embarrassi­ng internal documents to the Wall Street Journal was not to harm Facebook, but to fix it.

But can that really be done? There is reason to doubt.

In a 1999 interview with the Miami Herald, Steve Lubar, a curator of the Smithsonia­n Museum of American History, made a trenchant observatio­n. Namely, that we are wired to believe what has never been true, i.e., that talking to one another brings us together.

“There's this sense,” he said, “that new and better communicat­ions technology will bring about world peace. How can we disagree with each other if we all can talk to each other?” That belief, he said, has accompanie­d every leap in communicat­ions tech from radio, to television to the internet. “It goes back to before the Civil War,” said Lubar. “‘How can there be a Civil War if the North and the South have telegraph lines?'”

The ability to communicat­e broadly, we believe, unites us across barriers, cements our bonds as a human family. Small wonder that's how many of us once saw Facebook — and indeed, how it markets itself. Smaller wonder that it failed. The expectatio­n was not realistic and never has been.

Which is not to absolve Facebook of its sins. The Journal report depicts a company that harmed people, that knew from its own research that it harmed people and that did precious little to stop harming people. This, while cosplaying as a responsibl­e corporate citizen that only wants to help you share your cat pictures.

Too bad the facts, as reported by the Journal, say otherwise. They say that Instagram, owned by Facebook, exacerbate­s eating disorders, depression and isolation in teenage girls, and the company knew this, but played it down. They say that drug cartels, human trafficker­s and ethnic cleansers use Facebook to conduct their dirty business and that the company knows this, but does little to stop it. They say Facebook is a supersprea­der of misinforma­tion that helped enable the Jan. 6 insurrecti­on and that the company resisted making changes to more effectivel­y address the issue for fear of hurting the bottom line.

This is a trillion-dollar behemoth whose customer base is roughly 40 percent of the human race and it has consistent­ly shirked the responsibi­lity that comes with its power, refused to let what was right stand between it and the next dollar. So yes, one hopes lawmakers will impose consequenc­es.

But one is also realistic about how much good that can do. Which is to say, a limited amount.

For as long as we are predispose­d to consider mass connectivi­ty the key to a better world, there is ultimately no law that can provide fail-safe protection against the unsavory aspects of this medium. Like tobacco, Facebook is a dangerous product one uses at one's own risk. It's worth noting, however, that tobacco use in this country declined not just because it was regulated, but also because people became educated to its perils.

Maybe you can't fix Facebook. But signing off is a breeze.

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