Facebook was offline long enough on Monday for people to speculate, not only about what had incapacitated the social media behemoth, but also about life post-Facebook. For some that meant shopping for a competitor: Our company, Parler was one of them and experienced a surge of traffic.
But we suspect others used the downtime to ponder the outage – also affecting Instagram and WhatsApp – coinciding with whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations appearing on front pages worldwide. Those revelations were the subject of yet another congressional hearing Tuesday, with Haugen repeatedly urging privacy-preserving congressional oversight for the platform’s “engagement-based ranking” algorithms, and explaining that, ironically, such oversight – which she assumes would yield more purely chronological feeds – would also be in Facebook’s long-term self-interest.
Just as unconfirmed rumors have suggested for years, it appears that Facebook’s business model actually does depend upon amplifying conflict and divisiveness. According to Haugen, the company’s algorithms operate by stirring strong feelings – usually negative – about the content in users’ feeds.
While the algorithms are described as “amplifying interests,” not all strong feelings are equally encouraged. Warm-fuzzy, believe-in-yourself, peace-and-love need not apply. It’s apparent to users of both Facebook and Twitter that neither platform has, for years, neutrally transmitted content. Instead, they prioritize revenue-enhancing curation over feed palatability.
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Perhaps the first and most adept manipulators of Facebook users were Russian FSB agents who, drawing upon decades of experience in psychological warfare, knew that an opponent is rarely defeated ideologically or intellectually, but rather by exploiting psychological weaknesses. With Facebook’s algorithms at their disposal, they instigated participants on both sides of heated debates to face off in demonstrations on American soil.
While Facebook has acknowledged that its failure to completely banish state actors, bots and other fraudulent accounts has helped to facilitate such manipulation, it seems to have chosen to leave the algorithmic vehicles undisturbed.
Blaming one party for all of society’s ills is not acceptable. But it’s nonetheless worthwhile to ask about Facebook’s knowing contribution to our world’s problems. The most urgent one, as discussed by Haugen, may be the so-called dopamine effect of certain social media. Emotional manipulation causes people – especially young people – to become addicted to the instantaneous gratification the apps provide.
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Users find themselves continuously, mindlessly repeating actions, hoping for the next hit. Unfortunately, a similar dependency is evident in seeking an instant fix for life challenges via consumption of psychotropic substances. Too many of us seem to prefer pills or clicks to the uncomfortable discussions we (hopefully) come to learn are the only means of growth.
As noted at Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook’s response has thus far been astonishingly superficial. While management apparently understood the risks entailed by the algorithms, their solution wasn’t to eliminate them, but instead to develop supra-national Ministries of Truth and Love.
Assuming the authority to arbitrate over opinions and modes of expression – declaring some approved, others deserving a warning, and others wholly unacceptable – various departments, boards, fact-checkers or filters remove the offending-content-du-jour, the algorithm’s off-gassing. But they leave the underlying algorithm intact.
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We’ve already seen how ridiculous this approach is. Not so long ago, we would cheer on journalists and scientists as they debated the merits of the Wuhan lab-leak theory. Instead, Zuckerberg et al. first excluded the topic entirely, only later to quietly readmit it, which understandably has only exacerbated conspiracy thinking.
For years, congressional hearings pertaining to all (un)imaginable evils of social media have amplified a persistent argument that they must be regulated, controlled – even declared public utilities. Now the groundwork is laid to fully implement Orwell’s “1984“ by the stroke of a pen.
While politicians’ interest in mountains of personal data about billions of users is a textbook case of data envy, now we see the situation may well be much worse: If instruments of emotional manipulation are controlled by state actors, we’re in for a political rollercoaster fueled by exploitation of our psychological weaknesses.
To prevent this dystopia, we the people should, first, stop patronizing platforms that “collect it all.” No data, no algorithmic manipulation.
Second, as Haugen suggests, we might revisit the age at which children should be permitted to engage with these algorithms per se, just as we restrict their ability to obtain addictive physical substances like alcohol or cigarettes.
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But most importantly – and this is where we part ways with Haugen – we must prevent the government from obtaining any further control over instruments that apparently cannot be responsibly handled, even by a bunch of gifted Whiz Kids in the Valley.
We should staunchly oppose any legislation that puts not only personal data, but also manipulative algorithms at the disposal of politicians or bureaucrats, as some of the laws proposed during Tuesday’s hearing might entail. Private lawsuits, made more practicable by a narrower interpretation of Section 230, would help redress grievances of users of all ages.
Big Brother, which is precisely what a public-private “partnership” with Facebook might look like, isn’t any less pernicious if it’s spawned “for the children.”
We the People, harnessing the power of the free market, can stop this from happening if we start to act, at last, as consumers, and not as the consumed.
Amy Peikoff is chief policy officer at Parler. Benjamin Chayes is a historian.