The Facebook we don’t see

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

The series of explosive stories run by the Wall Street Journal about Facebook is not likely to be the last that will hound the world’s immensely popular – and highly profitable – social media company.

Regulatory agencies and media coverage have dogged Facebook for years, and for a long list of reasons. The one thing that stands out for its billions of Facebook users, though, is the unauthorized harnessing of personal data, often for monetary gain, sometimes for sinister deeds.

Going deep into Facebook’s history since its founding in 2004 unravels the many misgivings on how sharing personal information on an extremely sophisticated platform makes one susceptible to a host of issues.

The Facebook that many of us don’t immediately see has been deliberately misleading its users for years, and the WSJ exposés just add to a string of accusations that started right from the first day Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted photos and personal information of Harvard students from the university’s paper edition “face book” directory onto the web.

The online version was a smash hit, prompting Zuckerberg to expand its coverage to more universities and colleges in America and Canada. By 2006, with millions of dollars received from investors, Facebook went public – or at least to anyone who was at least 13 years of age and had a valid email address.

The rest, including the build-up of complaints against Facebook, as they say, is history.

Internal leaks

The WSJ exposés, dubbed as Facebook Files, talks about:

• Facebook keeping a private registry of very important people who are not exempted in the company’s content posting rules. The VIPs include celebrities and powerful politicians.

• Facebook’s leadership downplaying the company’s own researches that showed the psychological dangers posed on teenagers, especially girls, on Instagram, one of the social media platforms it owns.

• Despite Zuckerberg’s assurance that Facebook would counter disinformation about vaccination and COVID-19, anti-vaccine comments grew more in number.

Reactions of other news outlets have been phenomenal, which has brought to fore once again the many accusations about Facebook on a string of other controversial issues that would be too long to tackle in this column.

Suffice to say, this muck has been going on for over a decade, and as a result, countless stories have also been published that try to warn Facebook users on how they can best protect themselves. A good one I’ve come across is The Washington Post’s “Facebook privacy setting to change now.”

Protecting one’s self from exposing too much can never be too late, especially if you can’t get off this social media platform.

Comments are currency

One other readings I’ve came across, an opinion piece in The Guardian by Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, resonates best in trying to understand how Facebook works. Following are excerpts:

“The Facebook researchers who warned of [disinformation] problem understood what the company’s top leadership seems to ignore or deny: the problem with Facebook is Facebook. Facebook is designed to prompt engagement and reward engagement. The comments are its currency.

“Posts that generate a lot of comments get promoted by the algorithms, but those comments themselves become part of the overall message of the post. Arguments break out. And the more people bicker in the comments, the more prominent the post and the comments become. That’s why you can’t argue with evil, ignorance or craziness on Facebook – it’s counterproductive. Unfortunately, posting reasonable, solid information is also, in a sense, counterproductive: that kind of information receives almost no readers because reasonable posts do not generate irrational or unfounded responses – or they attract destructive or toxic responses, and those comments morph the message as Facebook picks it up and sends it to users’ newsfeeds.

“A world with Facebook is going to be crueler, stupider, and more deadly than one without Facebook

“Comments matter. Along with shares and likes, comments drive ‘engagement’ with posts and profiles. Everything at Facebook is designed to maximize engagement – even more than revenue. If the company can get its three billion users to interact with content as long and as often as possible, then revenue will take care of itself. As the sociologist Jeremy Littau has argued, we need better empirical analysis of the effects of Facebook comments on the overall communicative influence of Facebook. We are only just beginning to grasp the power of comments on Facebook’s system of algorithmic amplification and on users.

“Comments within posts that only obliquely concern COVID-19 or vaccines can have profound influence as well. A post in a Facebook group devoted to parents or schools could, say, generate anti-vaccine comments that attract significant attention and engagement. A post about professional American football, where vaccination policies have sparked blowback from players and fans, might become a hotbed of anti-vaccine propaganda. But most researchers and Facebook’s own content moderation systems don’t seem very concerned with comments.”

Stopping spread of false information

By understanding how Facebook works can do a whole world of good against all the lies that continue to proliferate. Disinformation, or the act of deliberately spreading false information can best to met by not engaging it on Facebook’s comment boxes.

Neither should you engage false claims on Facebook’s Messenger or WhatsApp since both have been accused of sharing Facebook users’ data, and therefore generate the engagement cycle that further exacerbates the spread of disinformation.

Until governments are able to come up with better regulations on Facebook and other similar technology platforms, let’s work to protect our personal data.

Facebook and Twitter

We are actively using two social networking websites to reach out more often and even interact with and engage our readers, friends and colleagues in the various areas of interest that I tackle in my column. Please like us on www.facebook.com/ReyGamboa and follow us on www.twitter.com/ReyGamboa.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.


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