Gosh, poor Mark Zuckerberg says he just wants friends and family to communicate more with each other. At least that’s the justification given for the way his world-spanning social media company, Facebook, manipulates algorithms to keep users engaged – not unlike how a drug dealer might play with the recipe in a meth lab to increase the addictive properties of the product.
Thanks to the disclosure of internal company documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen, we now have a clearer idea of how and why Zuckerberg’s team has been spiking certain kinds of content: They want to grow their empire and make even more money. That, of course, is the goal of any business, but sometimes the consequences of that ambition are benign and sometimes they are malign.
In the case of Facebook, it turns out the best way to keep people hooked and coming back for more is to keep them angry, scared and misinformed. Facebook’s algorithms have sharply favored the toxic, the conspiratorial, the inflammatory and the extreme.
“Anger and hate is the easiest way to grow on Facebook,” Haugen told the British Parliament on Monday.
In this country, Facebook can be blamed for giving a massive megaphone to promoters of Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, to the crackpot right-wing myths of QAnon, to the militants who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and to various other racist and anti-democratic memes and organizations. The problem extends well beyond our borders, though. In India, Facebook is being blamed for promoting violent anti-Muslim propaganda. In many countries, Facebook is synonymous with the internet and is the dominant source of information, much of it mendacious and incendiary.
Zuckerberg may like to pretend his little company merely provides a way for folks to get together and chat, but the reality is that Facebook is a global colossus with immense power to do harm. Self-policing seems beyond the capability of the company’s army of smart techies – especially if it gets in the way of making a few more billion dollars.
It is time for the federal government to step in and save us from algorithms that favor hate, lies and fury.
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