Magazine Reporter Tessa Pang writes that the notion that Facebook needs to be regulated by decisive legislation is uncontested. She argues that discourse blaming Facebook for everything that’s gone wrong – from the rise of right-wing extremism to disinformation – only obfuscates responsibility from those actually at fault, allowing them to remain faceless in the shadows.
We’ve spent a fair share of the last few years hating Facebook, and for good reason. Facebook’s most recent whistleblower confirmed our worst fears – that everything evil we speculated Facebook might be doing in the background is true.
They’ve provided neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremist groups with a breeding ground to grow their hateful ideologies, allowing them to use their platforms to recruit members across the globe.
They’ve intentionally concealed information that showed their platforms exacerbated eating disorders in young girls – and instead of taking action against it, they have continually promoted pages glorifying eating disorders to those same young girls.
When it came to coronavirus misinformation, they told us not to worry – that they were taking it seriously and removing the related posts. However, leaked documents show that they were deliberately hiding crucial data that suggested this wasn’t the case at all.
The list goes on…
It’s incontestable that Facebook’s actions are in desperate need of immediate global regulation – every human being with a pulse agrees with that. As policymakers from across the political spectrum attempt to tame the beast that is Facebook, it’s important to question whether this legislation is going to fix the root cause of these problems.
The truth is, Facebook didn’t start neo-Nazi groups, nor did it invent coronavirus disinformation. Facebook merely holds a mirror up to society – and the reflection we see is ugly. It unearths and amplifies the dark and depraved thoughts we have, and it highlights just how easily humans can be manipulated.
“Facebook merely holds a mirror up to society – and the reflection we see is ugly. It unearths and amplifies the dark and depraved thoughts we have, and it highlights just how easily humans can be manipulated.”
In order to start fixing these large-scale systemic problems, we need to be real about where they come from. Let’s take coronavirus and vaccine disinformation as an example. Data shows that Facebook has allowed accounts that spread coronavirus disinformation to gain over 370,000 followers in the past year. It’s easy to say that Facebook is at fault for allowing something that is obviously antithetical to science to spread so widely; but placing Facebook at the center of this problem crowds out our ability to see the societal structures that allow disinformation to gain so much traction. In fact, a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) shows that the vast majority of coronavirus disinformation comes from only 12 people. To stop the spread of coronavirus disinformation, we should be unpacking the incentives of these 12 influential individuals, discrediting them and ensuring they can’t pollute our timelines again. Instead, our discourse has mainly focused on Facebook’s role in spreading COVID-19 disinformation.
Making Facebook the villain here allows everyone – from your uncle who once shared a post that says vaccines contain 5G, to the politicians who call COVID-19 a “hoax”, to these 12 individuals – to completely distance themselves from the scene of crime. It diminishes the individual role each of these people played in the spread of disinformation and instead places the blame on this amorphous and all-corrupting “social media company”.
This is all part of human nature. We want to be able to blame a force far greater than ourselves. Pointing the finger at Facebook in this situation feels much easier than attempting to identify and take down the 12 powerful individuals who started this mess in the first place or trying to convince your uncle that vaccines don’t contain 5G.
So, we can hate Facebook for how it’s amplified misinformation and how it’s acted as a cheerleader for disordered eating. What we can’t do is act like simply regulating Facebook with legislation is going to make those things go away. To do that, we need to start looking at the role individuals play within it. From politicians to anonymous individuals online – no one is blameless in this crisis.