They say the pace of change keeps accelerating. I find that comforting because it means good ideas occur more frequently and bad ideas are discarded more rapidly. On the other hand, good ideas come under attack almost as soon as they originate, and have to be strong enough to survive. At one point people thought Facebook was a good idea. Now people with political opinions routinely attack Facebook, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. These attacks come from both the left and the right. Many rejoiced when Facebook recently reported its first ever decline in the number of daily active users, which led to a fall in the company’s share value. Before we dive into the detail of why there has been such a dramatic shift in sentiment towards Facebook, we might step back and wonder at the remarkable speed with which Facebook has fallen out of fashion. Is Facebook a good idea, a bad idea, or something in between? As you can guess from the title of this piece, I will argue that Facebook is less awful than some people now want to suggest.
It might be argued that people flocked to join Facebook in numbers that have never previously been seen throughout the whole of history. Over 2.8 billion people use Facebook per month. For the duration of the 2010’s, Facebook was the most downloaded app of the decade. By 2020 Facebook had slipped from being the top download but was still the third most downloaded app of the year, after TikTok and WhatsApp. That is impressive, especially when you consider that WhatsApp is owned by the same company.
If you read certain newspapers or watch certain television shows you are bombarded by people who now insist that Facebook is utterly terrible. Facebook gets blamed for murders. It gets blamed for suicides. It is blamed for casually spreading extremism and it is blamed for slavishly serving the establishment.
Facebook was never perfect but the current hyperbole about its faults is an overcompensation for the past. Most people only feel the need to overcompensate if mistakes have already been made. Some former users may feel guilt about using it, but all of Facebook’s faults were predictable. People use Facebook to lie? Duh. People lie all the time across every medium. People use Facebook to snoop on others? Duh. If data is the new oil then privacy must be a gas station that has run dry. Individuals, governments and businesses have always been nosey for personal reasons, to exert control, and for monetary gain. Facebook makes money by giving you things you want but which are bad for you? Duh. If you are familiar with cigarettes, alcohol or chocolate then you are familiar with products that people keep choosing to buy even though they are bad for them.
Some people seem to believe that because social media is new that the human race lacks relevant experience of the risks. Those people lack historical perspective. Think cyberbullying is new? Poison pen letters used to be rife. Are you concerned about girls being presented with unrealistic expectations about a woman’s body? Review the history of corsets. Do you blame 21st century capitalism for exploiting people’s addictions? Britain started a war in 1839 just to ensure more Chinese became addicted to narcotics.
To further illustrate my point, consider an idea that almost everyone now agrees was truly terrible: that witches live among us and they need to be tried and executed. The peak of the mania surrounding witchcraft is represented by a 50-year period during which five major witch trials were held in Southern Germany:
- Trier, 1581-1593, which resulted in at least 368 ‘witches’ being burned alive
- Fulda, 1603-1606, where about 250 were murdered by the witch trials
- Eichstätt, 1613-1630, where 224 people were tried and executed in total
- Würzburg, 1625-1631, which executed 219 in the city and killed 900 in the surrounding region
- Bamberg, 1626-1631, which led to the murder of approximately 1,000 people
Witch trials are a bad idea because there has never been an actual witch. Magic does not exist, for good or evil. Fake news was never faker than when God-fearing people swore on the Bible and proceeded to give testimony against women and men accused of witchcraft. Historical records indicate many people who were alive at the time of the trials were fully aware that witchcraft was not real. For example, the Roman Inquisition admitted in 1635 that they had struggled to find a single example of a witch trial which had been conducted legally. In other words, per the standard of proof they had established, nobody was ever proven to be a witch.
The lack of any real witches did not stop the idea of witches and witchcraft spreading far and wide, resulting in the deaths of many more innocent people. By the middle of the 17th century, the population of Southern Germany had grown tired of seeking trumped-up reasons to torch their cousins and neighbors, but the same bad ideas went on to kill 71 in Torsåker, Sweden (1675), kill 139 in Salzburg, Austria (1675-1690), and kill 19 in Salem, Massachusetts (1692-93). Witch trials became steadily less common and a growing number of countries banned them during the 18th century, but there was a witch trial in Poland as late as 1775.
The history of witch trials shows that a truly awful idea can spread over an extensive geographical range and remain popular for several hundred years even though there was never a single real example of the thing that the trials kept claiming to find. And that bad idea managed to spread long before anyone owned a personal computer or a mobile phone, and before anyone had access to the internet or Facebook. Bad ideas are also spread by word of mouth and by books. King James VI of Scotland wrote a book about witchcraft. The book was called Demonology and was published in Scotland in 1597, then again in England in 1603 when James acceded to the English throne. If literal kings were taught that witches exist, and then repeated the lesson in turn, then it is no wonder that some ordinary folk were persuaded to believe the same. Bad ideas get spread not because of the technology used to spread them, but because people have bad ideas and because people spread their ideas by every method available to them.
Mark Zuckerberg is not the subject of a witch-hunt in the sense used above. The billionaire founder of Facebook, whose company recently rebranded as Meta, is not in danger of being burned at the stake, and he enjoys a great deal more comfort than even the wealthiest and most powerful inhabitants of 17th century Europe. But I think his life does illustrate a point about the pace of change. The idea of witchcraft was dismissed by medieval Christian doctrine, but then came back into fashion, then fell out of fashion. That cycle of hysteria took hundreds of years to unfold. The closest modern example of mass moral panic concerns the threat posed by social media. In many respects, I am the perfect age to have observed how it has progressed. Zuckerberg was too young, and hence too lacking in life experience, to have been able to anticipate how it would evolve. This is why he failed to take adequate steps to preempt his critics. He had too much faith in people.
- In the beginning, most people did not understand social media was, so they did not pay heed to its potential or to the associated risks.
- Then politicians and celebrities courted Zuckerberg because of his success, his wealth, his popularity and his reach.
- Those false friends now distance themselves from Zuckerberg whilst others seek to condemn him.
Facebook’s main problem is not that it is badly managed, but that people are people. Billions of users means Facebook cannot offer some idealized notion of how people should behave, but instead represents a fair approximation of all that is good or bad about human beings. Some people might be censored, but if some are censored then that will inevitably encourage doubt about whether the right people are being censored for the right reasons. A common failing is to be too optimistic about a new idea, and then to become too cynical when it fails to live up to early expectations. Much is talked about the algorithms of Facebook leading to too much attention being paid to unworthy subjects, but that is like saying advertising is too effective at making you buy products you do not really want. Even if you think that is true, the alternative is to seek a truce where no person ever seeks to influence anyone else again.
Facebook is very good at getting people’s attention. But you could just as well ask why newspaper editors choose the headlines for their stories. They do not choose the words that are least likely to entice you into reading the article. You could ask why politicians often like to make a hullabaloo out of nothing, or why devout people go from door to door to advise you the joys of their religion. People have always sought the attention of others, and there has always been a lot of fighting about who is allowed to do it and whether they are doing it the right way. You do not need a machine to realize that people can exercise an unhealthy fascination with half-truths and sensational topics. Societies have yet to find a way that allows only ‘good’ communication to occur so that nobody hears or says things they should not.
It is often suggested that using social media leads to a reduction in the attention span. That might also explain why so many have forgotten all those times when Barack Obama wanted to be seen alongside Mark Zuckerberg and all those occasions when feminists like Hillary Clinton openly courted Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for being a positive example of what women could accomplish in the workplace. Now I doubt you would ever catch a leading politician in the same frame as Zuckerberg or Sandberg unless the politician is wagging an angry finger at the business executives for their failures. Trump invited Zuckerberg to the White House, but only to tell him off. Biden now just tells Zuckerberg off from afar, giving press conferences where he blames Facebook for ‘killing people’, whilst Republicans claim Zuckerberg bankrolled the victory of Democrats in the 2020 elections.
The powerful friends of Facebook have all disappeared from view, much like people too scared to defend someone accused of being a witch. Others see a possibility of advancement by leading the witch trials or denouncing their peers. They may well succeed in humiliating some people; I hope that is sufficient punishment to appease the mob. Curtailing Facebook is no remedy for humanity’s well-known sins: our pride, greed, vanity, lust, anger and laziness. On the contrary, some are motivated to denounce Facebook because they indulge the vice of envy.
It is telling that for all the complaints that Facebook must change, there is no consensus for how it should change. Facebook’s opponents on both the political left and the political right have no desire to split up a network of billions. They would rather co-opt it for their own ends. They want to choose what messages are heard and which are suppressed. However, becoming the censor also invites criticism and opposition. That is why they all prefer to keep Facebook’s management in place, so they can receive all the blame for failing in the impossible task of keeping everyone satisfied.
If Facebook is addictive then why not resort to reducing its appeal by taxing its users? Politicians like to tax everything from cigarettes and alcohol to carbon and sugar. A tax on the use of Facebook would soon reduce the number of active users, and there is no more fashionable idea than governments raising money by targeting the biggest internet platforms. The reason politicians do not propose a tax on users of Facebook is because they are happy to rile up those voters who feel Facebook is full of bile and danger, but unwilling to upset all the other people who find it a convenient and effective way of staying in touch with family, friends, and with events that are happening more generally.
I do not want Mark Zuckerberg to be influenced by any of the people telling him what should and should not be allowed on Facebook. I have no reason to trust those people more than Zuckerberg, and considerable reason to trust them less. Corrupt people seek power. One reason to like Zuckerberg is that he attained his power without really seeking it. It was annoying that an immature kid had business cards printed which said “I’m CEO, Bitch” but it also shows he was not trying to slime his way towards greater power. Zuckerberg may be as fallible as most other people, but if someone else is appointed to control the content on Facebook then that person may well prove to be as poor a judge of the truth as James VI, or as dangerous as the judges who sentenced so many ‘witches’ to be executed.
The leaders of the current mob of digital puritans are not that different to the fanatics who were responsible for the witch trials. They may puff out their chests and boast of their morality. However, they cannot furnish any hard evidence that the world would be better by eliminating, or silencing, a lot of people just because their behavior is different to the norm. Perhaps some of the ‘witches’ believed in nonsense like casting spells, or the magical power of herbs. Perhaps some of them lied, or indulged in fantasy and exaggeration. But so did many of their accusers.
Facebook threw lots of spies off its network recently. Most of those spies are paid for by governments. Which means they were paid by you. The same governments that denounce Facebook for manipulating your thoughts and stealing your secrets are the governments who also use Facebook to manipulate your thoughts and steal your secrets. I do not want to suggest governments are alone in trying to use and abuse you. There are very many people trying to do that. Governments just have more resources, which is why they are better at it, and why we need to be conscious of their power. If you think Facebook is already too powerful then I can see no justification for giving that power to governments that have even more power and trusting them to use it wisely. It would be better to destroy Facebook than to allow its power to be co-opted by the people who already have most power.
Sometimes censorship achieves good ends and sometimes it does more harm than good. 5G does not spread coronavirus or cause cancer, though if you actually read the carefully-worded studies performed by health academics you would find none of them give clear, straightforward reassurances either. The Roman Inquisition censored Galileo although he was right about Earth orbiting the Sun, and not vice versa. Most people believe they favor the truth over lies, or at least pretend to. The difficulty is that we are all sometimes mistaken about the truth and there is no easy answer to that.
You do not need to be a student of technology to know why people sometimes believe falsehoods, though being a student of history might help. Mistakes are made whenever humans are involved. Technology keeps changing but human failings remain the same. For all the fuss about algorithms and data, the main cause of Facebook’s failings are human. Those failings are not unique to a man like Mark Zuckerberg, but are failings that we all share.