Tuesday, February 05, 2019

What to do about Facebook?

Or is it? Sign from Occupy 2012
Anne Applebaum writes that we must somehow regulate Facebook, proclaiming: The future of democracy is at stake. She likens our love/hate relationship with the behemoth to radio's value to totalitarians in the 1930's, pointing to Hitler's broadcast bile. (She also name checks Stalin although a cursory web search on Soviet radio suggests it was more mind-numbingly boring than effective propaganda -- not wide enough access.) She points out that at present we are leaving the decisions as to what flies in social media to the profit-seeking tech entrepreneurs who own the companies and who have not necessarily demonstrated they have the interests of society at heart. She concludes
If we don’t do it [regulate] — if we don’t even try — we will not be able to ensure the integrity of elections or the decency of the public sphere. If we don’t do it, in the long term there won’t even be a public sphere, and there won’t be functional democracies anymore, either.
That is, she's fully on the war path.

The hook for Applebaum's article is that Facebook, after over a year of cooperation, decided without notice or explanation to deactivate ProPublica's browser plug-in which tracked what political ads were targeted to users who installed it. I knew that; my Facebook feed stopped allowing me to post articles with previews one day recently and began flipping around randomly. By trial and error, I figured it was the ProPublica thing, removed it, and the feed now mostly works as I'd come to expect it to.

So I very much get Applebaum's point; Mark Zuckerberg is offering a front end view of our world that masquerades as a neutral public utility -- until he wants to control how we use his toy marketing environment.

Whether we think Facebook should be regulated hangs a lot on what we think it is/how we choose to use it. If it is primarily a venue to socialize and share fun stuff for which we pay by getting ads thrown in our faces, it's just a another slightly more friendly broadcast medium -- like TV, but addictingly interactive. If we use it as a source of information without a lot of discernment, we're nuts. I wouldn't look at anything cute or adrenaline-raising on Facebook unless I would be willing to browse the website that hosts it directly. That deprives me of some potential web connections, but it seems worth it. If I looked at a bunch of venues I'd never heard of, then I'd have to research them for accuracy. I'm used to the inaccuracies and coverage lapses of my known media outlets.

I participate in Facebook because I share my blog posts in that venue -- that is I'm broadcasting. Facebook doesn't seem to show my stuff around much; don't know if that's because my friends aren't interested (their right) or because of some incompatibility with the algorithm.

My blog appears in 3 1/2 web places: its home page: via Twitter automatically; on Facebook which I have kept up manually since August when the platform broke the auto-post function I had used; and intermittently as a "diary" on Daily Kos when the subject matter seems appropriate. I have friends who do not overlap in all those venues. That's okay with me, though I suspect it is not so okay with Mr. Zuckerberg's world-engulfing dreams.

There is something wrong with the reality that a private company -- a private person in fact -- determines what we get to see on such a vital access point for so many. And there's something wrong with the fact that media organizations have built their distribution mechanisms around Facebook only to find that an unpredictable algorithm has tweaked them away from their audience.

Vox has published a sort of symposium marking Facebook's 15th anniversary. Some entries were thought provoking:
  • Meredith Broussard: We need more regulation of Facebook and tech companies. I think that we have done the experiments of “let’s try this and see how it goes.” And it has not gone as well as we have hoped. We need to have a conversation about this, as a public and as a community. I think part of the problem has been that we have a couple of a couple of people saying that this is how it’s going to be and trying to govern tech as a dictatorship. I think we’re a democracy, and we need to have a public conversation about it.
  • Aminatou Sow: ... as citizens we cannot outsource our privacy and security to tech moguls. They always have ulterior motives and we are pawns in their game. We are living the consequences.
  • Peter W. Singer: Facebook is a kind of mirror of what exists in real life. We use it, and the network of companies it’s bought — from Instagram to WhatsApp — to reflect out to the world the stories of our lives. ... The question of its net positive or negative, thus, will be answered by what we see in that mirror, and what each of us chooses to do about it.
  • Antonio Garcia-Martinez: Technologies, particularly in the media sphere, seem to inevitably move from improbable contraption, to dangerous tool whose implications are worryingly discussed, and thence to dull and semi-obsolete utility.
What do you think about our ubiquitous companion?

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

Deeply powerful and dangerous tool, which you need to use and consume intelligently, which of course very few people do. I've got less than 300 "friends," have unfollowed about a quarter of them because I'm not interested in their food or their games, and the 200 that are left are all great broadcasters like you. I use it as my personal news and information link clearinghouse, to be honest, and feel fortunate to have such interesting "friends." Principally use it to pimp my blog, like you do, but also comment on the pages of friends and family who use Facebook itself as their broadcasting medium.

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