Debates in America can be circular. Consider the debate over Facebook. Yesterday a whistleblower argued before Congress that Facebook poses a danger to children by aggregating content and moving it up their news feeds based on popularity, not sound judgment. Thus, Facebook sometimes promotes bad information masquerading as good content. That would equate to news being generated by likes rather than driven by real events or objective facts.
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, told a Senate hearing that the social network’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” Facebook pushed back, saying on Twitter that Haugen “did not work on child safety.”
Some of the accusations against Facebook are very serious. Does it foster hate speech and misinformation? Is its content harmful to teens? Are its algorithms influenced by dangerous actors like drug cartels and human traffickers?
Is Facebook a news operation or a connecting platform like the phone company, a generator of news or just a pipeline for conversation? It’s the same argument we had about cable news when it became opinion driven and less objective.
Does it harm people to have content that could be serious and true repeated over and over again, mixed in with commentary and opinion? We lost that journalism debate when opinion and fact became intertwined in a massive fog of information that was posted, reposted, tweeted and retweeted.
What’s new is the exponential reach of Facebook and its other properties, and the way it digs deeper and deeper into more and more people’s lives, obscuring fact and fiction, luring users into a trap of self-imposed group think and ultimately extending into conspiracy theories and false information.
For many, Facebook and Instagram have always been about documenting their lives, not covering news. When it suffered an outage yesterday, Facebook left billions of anxious social media users in the dark.
But in the dark about what exactly? About what we had for lunch, which new tricks our dogs performed or which positions someone took in a Yoga class? What has become a ubiquitous method of communications left us all isolated with no way to show off. But did it really cut us off from news about the world at large.
It did, because many of the nearly three billion Facebook users rely on it to get to other websites, connecting with friends and family and even ordering a meal. According to one study, the average person spends 59 hours a week online. Facebook has become the equivalent of “critical infrastructure” for many people, and we truly don’t want to be without power or information.
But the wider crisis about Facebook has to do with the fate of human interaction. The pandemic has forced many of us indoors, masked and socially distanced. We have not had to exercise communications skills. The ability to “power down” and “power off” is a lifelong skill that is probably not taught early or often enough. Maybe this is a time to teach it.
We have been fed a steady diet of online news, images and views. We hardly know what we think, and we are starved for personal communications. Studies show that we have grown accustomed to “group think” and need the reinforcement of others who share our views. That means that if we all are forced to think for ourselves, there might not be a stampede of uniform and self-reinforcing ideas. Imagine that.
The question for Congress, the executive branch and even the Supreme Court will be about regulating social media giants such as Facebook. But at a time when almost every institution is so bitterly divided, and Americans lack confidence in all forms of government, that could be a recipe for disaster.
Ultimately, we are being overwhelmed with information. And though we realize it’s unhealthy, we don’t know what to do about it. But let’s remember that we are still the arbiters of what is good for us and what is not. That is what democracy is about.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.