July 18, 2024

The rot at the heart of our discontent

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BY REED ANFINSON

Co-Publisher Grant County Herald

In our 40 years as a journalist, we’ve never seen such a divisive, angry, intolerant time in America. It hasn’t just infected the metropolitan areas of the county but has embedded itself in our rural communities as well.

There is only one vector so pervasive and addictive it could so quickly erode the tolerance we once had for one another’s beliefs and political persuasions – the internet and social media.

We’ve suspected it as the cause with numerous articles and books written about its dark side. But until recently, we didn’t have the definitive proof that the most dominant social media of all, Facebook, was intentionally ripping our democracy and society apart for profit.

Two weeks ago Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, exposing the lengths the company will go to maximize its earnings.

Haugen, 37, has a computer engineering degree and a master’s degree in business. She has worked in the tech industry for 15 years, including two at Facebook. While there, Haugen worked as a data expert for its civic integrity unit – where she found only the façade of integrity.

“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” Haugen told the committee. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”

How “astronomical” are those profits? 

In an article on Facebook for The

Atlantic

magazine, editor Adrienne LaFrance says that advertisers paid $54 billion to the company in the first half of the year. Its annual revenues exceed that of many nations.

“Facebook is not merely a website, or a platform, or a publisher, or a social network, or an online directory, or a corporation, or a utility,” LaFrance writes. “It is all of these things. But Facebook is also, effectively, a hostile foreign power.

“This is plain to see in its single-minded focus on its own expansion; its immunity to any sense of civic obligation; its record of facilitating the undermining of elections; its antipathy toward the free press; its rulers’ callousness and hubris; and its indifference to the endurance of American democracy,” she writes.

While we’ve always been sold on the story that social media brings us closer together, Facebook perverts that assumption. Haugen testified that a 2018 Facebook “change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.”

When it became evident that the new algorithms enhanced the site’s already addictive qualities, Facebook fixed them in place, profiting from the anger it was creating.

The primary reason Facebook is so committed to facilitating the spread of lies over its platforms is that “misinformation got six times more clicks than factual news during the 2020 election,” Eric Alterman, distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, writes. It isn’t just the news about the 2020 election that has been distorted. Topics on all political and social issues are supercharged with divisive spin to promote activity on the site.

Discontent, prejudice, and fear are the kindling Facebook seeks to ignite to create bitter disputes between friends, family, and strangers. These perversely stimulated interactions pour money into Facebook’s bank account.

“Facebook is a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse,” LaFrance writes. It is designed to engage us emotionally then lead us to sources that heighten those emotions, cementing them.

“Facebook executives have tolerated the promotion on their platform of propaganda, terrorist recruitment, and genocide. They point to democratic virtues like free speech to defend themselves while dismantling democracy itself,” she writes.

How insidious is Facebook’s power? Consider these two pieces of information.

A New

York

Times article reported how Facebook founder and principal owner Mark Zuckerberg had approved a new project with the code name “Project Amplify.” Its purpose was to fill “Facebook’s News Feed, the site’s most important digital real estate,” with positive stories about itself.

So the most formidable information platform in the world is feeding its members propaganda. Many people have shown they can’t separate fact from fiction on the internet and are thus drawn into Facebook’s self-promotion campaign.

Facebook , which has “no prohibitions against out-and-out lying and promoting violence for profit, is now also going to be used specifically to promote itself, so that it might do even more of the same,” Alterman writes.

Then there is the story of liberal U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who, when running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2019, called for the breakup of Facebook. What was Zuckerberg’s reaction? “‘We care about our country and want to work with our government to do good things,’” he said. “‘But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.’”

Just a little tweaking of Facebook algorithms to promote slightly negative stories about Warren could start appearing in the Facebook News Feed. Or an opponent could be boosted. Subtle, barely noticeable actions but with a substantial impact. Warren, or any candidate like her foolish enough to threaten Facebook, could be sabotaged.

“Congressional action is needed” if Facebook’s destructive profit-making motives are to be curtailed,” Haugen said. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle heartedly agreed. However, there is an army of Facebook lobbyists with deep bankrolls cruising the halls of Congress. We aren’t overly optimistic that anything will come of Haugen’s testimony despite its critical importance to the future of our democracy and civil society.

Meanwhile, we must do our best to tamp down the demonization of those whose views differ from our own in our communities. It is a difficult task, one constantly undermined by the disinformation and discontent social media spreads.

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