I really thought I was done with Facebook, and for all the right reasons, large and small.
After all, it’s a source of global misinformation whose effects have been dire. It promotes political tribalism and division. It makes me jealous of my friends’ seemingly perfect lives. And it keeps trying to lure me into buying overpriced, unnecessary (and beautiful) blouses from a place called Frank and Eileen.
Who needs any of that? In recent months, I’ve hardly looked at it — until the question of the slag-dumping arose.
I’ve been writing a memoir, mostly about my life in journalism, but I touch briefly on my childhood in Lackawanna, N.Y., where Bethlehem Steel once operated a huge mill that employed 28,000 people.
As a kid, I would see the sky turn bright orange at dusk. We all knew that this had nothing to do with a glorious sunset, though it was pretty. It meant, in the neighborhood vernacular, that “they’re dumping the slag.”
I wanted to be precise about this. So I started researching online, but couldn’t find what I was looking for.
Then it occurred to me that I could crowdsource this on Facebook. Many of my contacts there are friends and family from western New York, including plenty from Lackawanna.
So I put the question out there — and all the information I was looking for immediately came flooding in.
A former Buffalo News colleague said she would ask her father, who had worked at the plant. Soon she got back with a detailed answer about how the molten waste from steelmaking was routinely dumped into or near Lake Erie, and why the color could be seen miles away. So did my cousin Jerry.
Some responded with their own imagery. “The entire plant had the aura of Vulcan’s forge,” wrote one.
Another posted a YouTube video of another Bethlehem Steel plant actually doing the dumping, which was a startling sight — and quite appalling if you happen to care about a clean environment.
And, most notably, a childhood friend reminded me that our former high school headmaster at Buffalo’s Nardin Academy, Michael Langan, had written a book about growing up in Lackawanna and working his way through school with a job at Bethlehem Steel. Within a few hours, and without my contacting him, Mike had texted me. He was putting his book in the mail.
Well, this was terrific, I had to admit. It was more than I could ever use, but it was wonderful to hear people’s recollections, and to learn a lot about steelmaking.
Then reality set in.
Only hours later, I went out to my porch to find that a different book had arrived. It was “An Ugly Truth,” the just-published study of Facebook’s “battle for domination,” by two New York Times tech reporters, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang.
It’s a tough, thorough look at the behemoth company that now has nearly three billion users and, as of last month, is worth a trillion dollars.
The Washington Post’s reviewer, Susan Benkelman of the American Press Institute, summed up its take-away: “The company has put growth and profits above all else, even when it was clear that misinformation and hate speech were circulating across the platform and that the company was violating the privacy of its users.”
And then I remembered a few things — like having been present at the Senate hearing in 2018 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tried to defend the company policies that enabled the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, intent on electing Donald Trump as president, to get its hands on data from millions of users.
I remembered how thoroughly incapable many senators were of even understanding the way Facebook works, much less regulating it effectively, and how at one point, 84-year-old Orrin Hatch of Utah asked a question about the company’s business model so basic that Zuckerberg was able to answer it in four words: “Senator, we run ads.”
When it comes to Facebook, the good and the bad are indivisible. As Zuckerberg likes to brag, it’s all about connecting people, and, up to a point, that’s true, as I found out once again in my slag-dumping inquiry.
But that connectivity — combined with the company’s endless quest for domination and profit — comes with a huge downside.
To the casual user posting wedding photos or recipes, doing research or finding that old friend, using Facebook may seem to be not only fun but free.
But in reality, the price is astonishingly high. And it’s only going in one direction.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.