“If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” That’s a truism about the digital age so obvious that you’ve no doubt become sick of hearing it. Facebook denies this plain reality in a just-published response to the ragingly-popular film, The Social Dilemma. That makes it pretty hard to take anything else the company writes in its response seriously.
The Social Dilemma is a Netflix docu-drama that demonstrates what a lot of us have been saying for a while: Facebook is addictive, it profits off hate and extremism, it’s a threat to democracy and our mental health, and so on. The movie has touched a nerve with audiences — and with Facebook, clearly. So in a response published this week titled “What The Social Dilemma Got Wrong,” the firm cites seven grand topics raised in the film that it wants to dispute. This press release is actually a pretty good summary of all the terrible things Facebook is doing to the world. I read it so you don’t have to, but if you do, you’ll quickly grasp how tepid Facebook’s response has been to the crises it creates, and how strong its classic Silicon Valley denial is.
Point 2 of 7 claims, “You are Not the Product.” and then ignores that truth behind that truism in its claims. We sell ads, the firm says, so we can stay free. That’s all. No, Facebook, you sell audiences. That’s us. Without us, you wouldn’t have anything to sell. You don’t answer to us, you answer to the people who write you checks. We are … just the product.
The rest of the document contains similar Orwellian non-rebuttal rebuttals. We’re not “addictive,” we “create value.” Our algorithms aren’t “mad, they just “improve the experience.” OK, maybe we promote polarizing content, but that’s just a “tiny percentage” of what people see. (I welcome you to scan your news feeds for yourselves and decide). We respect privacy so much that we work with the Federal Trade Commission (after breaking the law and paying a record fine.) And so on.
It’s not fair to blame all the world’s ills on Facebook. YouTube deserves a lot of the blame, too. Yes, polarization existed before social media. But as I like to say, there’s evidence more people believe the Earth is flat today than 10 years ago, and you CAN blame that on the way social media works. Social media is the best tool ever created for spreading lies; truth is still looking for its pants in the digital age.
Facebook is playing whack-a-mole with this problem. Large and small examples abound. Here’s one: A friend recently had her Instagram (by Facebook!) photo pilfered for a fake account, probably in preparation for a catfishing expedition. She reported the image. The (automated) response she got back? “We didn’t remove (the account). We found that this account likely doesn’t go against our Community Guidelines.”
Why do things like this happen? Because Facebook has *never* been willing to spend the kind of money it should to keep its service safe. That’s because safety, as they say in Silicon Valley, doesn’t scale. Safety isn’t profitable.
Meanwhile, Facebook does profit from hate, and it has caused a lot of damage in the world. The firm still hasn’t reckoned with this stark reality. It might as well have titled this press release, “WE STILL DON’T GET IT.”
The long litany of missteps the firm has made in an attempt to rescue its product is exhausting to list. Here’s just one example: It’s pushing more users at groups now, even as groups are exposed for their role in extremism. (See this Bloomberg story).
I suspect what’s really eating the firm is the launch of an outside group called The Real Facebook Oversight Board, made up of some heavy hitters, like Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. (The ADL organized this summer’s #StopProfitForHate campaign.) At the oversight board’s coming out party last week, he bluntly said this.
“Facebook should do what every other company in American business history does when your product doesn’t work and it kills people, you take your product down and you fix it or you sunset it.”
That would be a good start.