Editor’s note: Facebook proved to be a godsend for hundreds of churches during the coronavirus pandemic, as the social media platform allowed congregations to broadcast their worship live, keep virtual prayer times and stay connected to members despite physical distance. Discoveries about Facebook’s internal functioning and unethical practices have led many, including United Methodist Insight, to question whether they will continue to use the platform. Unfortunately, there is no viable alternative to maintaining contact while the pandemic continues.
Do you remember your first one?
That moment of first attraction? Flirting? A sense of anticipation?
Then the moment you first connected?
We never forget our first one, even if the relationship breaks down a bit as it matures, even when a darker person appears, even when one morning we wake up and realize we are sleeping with Satan’s spawn.
I’m not talking about the first love of the human variety. I’m talking about our relationship with Facebook.
Most of us know history by now. Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and friends from Harvard University. As it spread rapidly, it remained limited to students and high school students with .edu email addresses.
My son first introduced me to Facebook sometime in 2006, while he was still in high school. It was clear that this was something special. In 2006, Facebook expanded to all consumers with a valid email address, young, old and everything in between. From that moment on, growth exploded, as did Zuckerberg’s wealth.
I signed in 2008 and remain active to this day.
But I have significant concerns, as do millions of others. These concerns were raised anxiously last week when former Facebook data analyst Frances Haugen testified before Congress, her testimony based on thousands of documents she took with her after she left the platform.
There was not much new in Haugen’s testimony. But she managed to confirm long-standing suspicions, now corroborated by these documents and made more credible thanks to her teaching in plain English.
She explained that Zuckerberg and the Facebook team know that their platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, can be harmful to the most vulnerable in our society, especially young people, especially young girls. But they are resisting changes that would offer greater protection.
Profit through change
She explained that Zuckerberg and his management team know that their platforms spread misinformation that harms people and institutions, including our democracy. But the necessary changes would slightly reduce the company’s huge profits as misinformation encourages clicks and strengthens consumer engagement.
She explained that Facebook executives know that the platform can be used to spread hatred, including ideas about white supremacy and destructive Christian nationalism. But the necessary changes to content algorithms could slow growth and, yes, reduce profits.
She explained that Facebook executives know that there are simple and quick fixes that could address concerns, but the company’s bureaucracy appreciates that obscene profit over people.
Her testimony was condemning.
With previously announced concerns about Facebook’s massive data mining initiatives that violate all notions of consumer privacy — and concerns about the platform’s political speech management — Haugen’s testimony makes it almost certain that Congress will step into tougher regulatory measures.
Still, I stay
Given that the company is soulless, value is placed in the first place of profit, why do I stay? Some of my friends and family members have left, some after the 2016 fake news / misinformation debacle, others out of privacy concerns. But I stay.
My first rosy romance with social media is long gone, of course. The newspaper is gone, as are my once passionate beliefs that Facebook and other social media platforms will democratize political discourse. And while Facebook remains a remarkable marketing tool for journalists, it also devalues mainstream news, while elevating fake and fake.
What remains, at least for me, is the most pragmatic benefit. I give up privacy and the deterioration that comes with misinformation and hate messages in exchange for the opportunity to stay in touch with friends and family. Simply, a fair transaction relationship.
Modern society isolates us, never more than during this pandemic. Our business and family commitments leave little time for occasional friendships or renewing old friendships that have disappeared. Facebook has changed that. I can stay in touch with people I enjoy even if I haven’t seen them in years or even talked to them.
Through Facebook, they can keep up to date with the activities of siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and their only child who stays on the platform. It provides me with the only means to stay in touch with alumni.
With friends and family scattered across the country, Facebook gives me the first pictures of a newborn family member, or the first news of a friend’s career change, or the first news, sadly, of a death. I often find out about big news from private posts on Facebook before the news gets into the mainstream.
It would all go away if I left Facebook and I’m not ready to make that sacrifice even though leaving would be a sensible, value-based decision.
I don’t think of myself as a social media addict. After retiring from the University of Idaho, I gave up most of the social media platforms I joined just to understand and keep up with my students.
Facebook is all I have left. I post in a rush, mostly stupid things about Oregon ducks, smoking cigars, or scenes from a trip or a view from the porch. Because of their privacy, I do not post anything about my children or grandchildren.
I can pass a few hours between registrations and I wasn’t at all disappointed by the break on Facebook early last week.
But I can’t leave.
Maybe there is hope
The actions of the Congress that limit the possibilities of any media house to do its job make me nervous and, without a mistake, Facebook is largely a media company. Still, I agree with those members of Congress from both parties who now argue that regulation is necessary – and inevitable.
Nothing Congress can do will restore my earlier passion for the platform. But it is possible that regulatory changes will bring little peace to a relationship that has deteriorated over time but remains promising.
With the help of Congress, perhaps Satan’s spawn can be redeemed.
Steven A. Smith is an associate clinical professor emeritus at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho, who retired from a regular lecture in late May 2020. He is a former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. the post was republished with the permission of Spokane FaV.