Part Two: Ugly

By Padraig Colman | Published: 2:00 AM Aug 10 2021
Columns Part Two: Ugly

By Padraig Colman

“Augmented and Virtual Reality” In his ‘Ugly’ memo circulated on 18 June 2016, Andrew Bosworth (Boz), Facebook’s Vice-President for augmented reality and virtual reality, argued that connecting people was a paramount goal for Facebook, and justified many of the company's practices.

 "Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still, we connect people.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg makes a big thing about Facebook's mission to connect. One might think of E.M. Forster's injunction "Only connect". This is the epigraph to Forster’s novel Howards End. 

His character Margaret Schlegel says: "The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them… It's one of the curses of London." In his short story The Machine Stops, written in the early years of the 20th Century, Forster anticipated the modern evolution of technology.

 Forster is not actually talking about Facebook kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private – the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires. Boz was talking about a different kind of connection. 

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in their recent book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination: "Boz had already defended his post on Facebook’s Workplace, arguing that he didn’t actually agree with aspects of his own memo and had written it to inspire debate. 

But employees wanted more. They wanted to know if he had actually considered the lives lost in countries where Facebook had grown at an astronomical pace. They asked if Facebook users from those countries had responded to his post directly, and if he felt bad about what he had written. Boz looked remorseful, but he repeated that he was simply making an intellectual argument and had intended the memo to spur debate."

 International harm 

Facebook has claimed credit for fostering struggles by citizens of oppressive regimes who have used Social Media sites for organising protests and creating networks. During the early days of the Arab Spring, many activists used Facebook to organise protests. To this day, numerous Media outlets run the claim that Social Media made the Arab Spring and that it was a Facebook revolution. However, many academics concluded that there is no significant correlation between internet or Social Media use and popular unrest. 

Indeed, despite posing as a force for progress, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive Governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started. There has been much criticism of Facebook being an enabler for the spreading of hatred. Only a year ago the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups that includes the AntiDefamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change, were disappointed with their meetings with Facebook. 

The group denounced Zuckerberg’s ‘same old defense of white supremacist, antiSemitic, islamaphobic, and other hateful groups’ that it has ‘heard too many times before.’ Frenkel and Kang write: "As Facebook employees surveyed what appeared to be a global rise in hate speech, they found the name of their company surfacing repeatedly as a source of conspiracies, false news accounts, and organised campaigns of hate speech against minorities. Trump’s Muslim ban announcement was used by far-right leaders across the world to take more extreme positions on Muslim immigrants and refugees. 

In Myanmar, several of the country’s military figures pointed to Trump’s Facebook posting through their own Facebook pages and argued that if the US could ban Muslims, Myanmar should do the same. And indeed, human rights activists increasingly linked the platform to attacks against Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority and to the brutal crackdown on civilians by the recently elected President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte” In Sri Lanka Government Ministers complained in 2018 that Facebook was too slow in dealing with incitement of violence against Muslims. 

The extremist leader Amith Weerasinghe, who was arrested after being accused of helping to instigate the violence, had amassed nearly 150,000 followers on his Facebook page before it was taken down. The chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said Facebook played a "determining role" in the Rohingya genocide. Facebook has been criticised for enabling Islamophobic content targeting the Rohingya people to spread. In February 2021, a Press Gazette investigation found that Facebook had accepted promotional content from Chinese State Media outlets such as China Daily and China Global Television Network that spread disinformation denying the Uyghur genocide. 

Harm to individuals 

There have been many studies which indicate that for some users giving up social networking sites is comparable to giving up tobacco or alcohol. There was the "World Unplugged" study conducted in 2011, a 2012 study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a 2013 study in in the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 

In April 2015, the Pew Research Centre published a survey of teenagers which showed 92 per cent went online daily with 24 per cent saying they went online ‘almost constantly.’ In March 2016, Frontiers in Psychology published a survey showing that the severity of ADHD symptoms had a statistically significant positive correlation with Facebook usage while driving a motor vehicle. 

In June 2018, Children and Youth Services Review published a regression analysis in Northern Italy which showed adolescents who persistently using Facebook showed ADHD symptoms and negative attitudes about the past and the future. 

The researchers proposed a category of psychological dependence and gave it the name ‘problematic social Media use.’ Ethan Zuckerman is an American Media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist, author of the book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. He is now an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts. Zuckerman has led efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces. 

“For better or worse, Facebook is an incredibly important platform for civil life, but the company is not optimised for civil life,” Frenkel and Kang write: “We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.” That includes me. 

I am not getting on a high horse here and looking down on lesser mortals who are worse at coping with Facebook than I am. I have always hated cigarettes but many years ago I did sometimes smoke even though I knew it was futile, dangerous and gave little pleasure. 

Now that I have achieved senility, I find that I do not have much taste for alcohol and not much capacity. That does not prevent me from irrational behaviour and consuming the poison when it seems pointless. I have weaned myself away from Facebook but I still get distracted. 

I have cut down my dose but I still allow myself to be diverted from more important or satisfying pursuits and feel unhappy afterwards. Facebook was down for about 30 minutes one Friday morning in 2014 and Los Angeles officials said their lines were overwhelmed with emergency calls. This cannot be right.

By Padraig Colman | Published: 2:00 AM Aug 10 2021

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