Facebook. You’d have to be living on another planet to have not heard of it. Most Americans have accounts on this social media giant. Facebook allows people to easily keep in contact with others. You can converse with others, make plans, post stories and or pictures, share videos or links to articles of interest. It has changed the way people communicate. Just like all of my high school friends, I opened an account. My friend list grew to over 300 people as I “friended” friends of friends and their friends. For a while, it was great. This is how we made plans to get together, sent each other jokes. I felt so popular. I felt like I really knew some of these people that I had never met in person. It was an easier way to break the ice with strangers as you could see pictures and things that were going on in other’s lives and felt like you know them. I felt more confident connecting as there wasn’t the awkwardness of trying to find common ground.
However, I soon learned there was a dark side to all this fun. Many people posted all the “fun” things they were doing, and it sounded like their lives were so much better than mine. Why didn’t they have any bad things happen to them or any boring lulls? I started to feel inferior. Then there was the cyberbullying I noticed popping up. Some people I was close to were devastated by untruths being posted about them by anonymous users hiding behind their clever screen names. I started to notice some questionable articles and stories making the rounds, being stated as facts, when in reality they weren’t true. Then news stories came out about Senate hearings and election meddling.
What happened to Facebook?
In 2003, Mark Zukerberg, a 19-year-old student at Harvard University, and three fellow students started an online service for Harvard students to judge the attractiveness of other students called “Facemash”. Even though it was shut down after two days, it was so popular, the four originators started a social network called “The Facebook” in 2004 where Harvard students could post pictures and personal information about themselves. It was opened up to other schools and in just six months had over 250,000 students from over 34 schools and by the end of that year saw 1 million users. Soon, it was known just as Facebook and was open to anyone over the age of 13, becoming the most used social media site.
Starting out, Facebook had all good intentions. Taken from the Facebook website, under Careers, their mission statement reads “ Founded in 2004, Facebook's mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them”. They also state “As our company grows we have 5 strong values that guide the way we work and the decisions we make each day to help achieve our mission. They are:
The company seemed really focused on improving society by helping people stay connected in a fast paced world. The thought was that this would lead to more understanding. When Facebook first decided to offer stock to the public in its initial public offering (IPO) in 2012, Zuckerberg wrote, “People sharing more - even if just with their close friends or families - creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.” (Zipkin).
The company started with, and still has, a lot of good qualities. Facebook makes people use their real identities. No one is allowed to pretend to be someone else. This fact allows people to feel safe knowing who they are conversing with. Some people might think they can hide their identity, but they really can’t. People started groups to share ideas about common interests and meetings. I remember finding out about social gatherings and community events. I also sometimes found out about people having a hard time through their posts on Facebook. This allowed me to reach out to talk with them either by private message on Facebook, or calling. It made me feel good to be able to help someone out when I otherwise might not have even known.
Facebook is free to anyone who wants to create an account. It makes its money by charging companies for advertising .Facebook worked with the companies to prove to them that could market directly to individuals by using data collected. Companies pay a lot of money for this targeted advertising. This can be a good thing for Facebook, but not always so good for the consumer as it can be seen as an invasion in privacy.
Facebook says it does not sell users data. What they do is write algorithms for the advertisers using Facebook user’s data based on what the advertisers want to target. There are a few types of ads that Facebook has and coined its own names for them. Sponsored stories are when an advertiser pays to highlight an action that a user takes. For example, if a user “likes” a product, that “like” can be shown to the user’s friends. Or if a user enters a sweepstakes, the that story can be shared with the user’s friends hoping that they will enter the sweepstakes too. Page Post ads can be shown to anyone on Facebook. They can be links, videos, events among other things. They are mostly used to promote events. Promoted Posts are shown to a page’s fans and can be spread by clicking on a promote button. Marketplace ads are shown in a sidebar and clicking on them can lead to an app or a company website. The different types of ads carry different prices. Some have one price, some are charged per click. (Darwell). So basically, companies tell Facebook what they want to do, what type of audience they want to target and Facebook chooses who will see the ads based on their preferences, likes, etc then puts the ads on their feeds. When people click on the ads, or like them, these get shared with their friends. And if you know your friend is interested in something, it might influence you to take a closer look.
Then there is the darker side. In contrast to its’ original goal of connecting people and promoting understanding and diversity, there were those who started using Facebook to promote hate and intolerance. School children cyberbully and shame other kids under anonymous names. Some political groups across the world started using Facebook to spread lies about their opponents and cause unrest and violence in their countries. Facebook did not really anticipate this and have any mechanisms in place to prevent things like this from happening. One example is in the country of Myanmar. “Facebook employees missed a crescendo of posts and misinformation that helped to fuel modern ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. (Stevenson).
However, in an article from the Business section of Wired.com, Issy Lapowsky and Steven Levy point out that, “From a legal perspective, Facebook is under no obligation to write or enforce any of these policies. It is protected from the consequences of its users' speech by a provision of the 1996 act that defines social media platforms as a 'safe harbor' for speech. That 'Section 230' provision distinguishes Facebook from a publisher that stands behind its content. Yet Facebook knows that it must go beyond the legal minimum to keep itself from descending into a snake pit of harassment, bullying, sexual content and gun-running. There is also an increasing clamor to do away with Section 230 now that the internet startups the provision was intended to help are giants.” So even though legally, Facebook doesn’t have to police its content, users demand it to a certain extent. And laws may change, so it’s important that they put some provisions in place to help with that.
Facebook does have Community Standards that outline what is and what is not allowed on Facebook. These are enforced by employees called “moderators” who scan entries for content and respond to complaints about posted content. But they walk a fine line. “Facebook's dilemma is that it wants to be a safe place for users without becoming a strict censor of their speech. In the document released today it explains, ‘We err on the side of allowing content, even when some find it objectionable, unless removing that content prevents a specific harm.’” (Lapowski and Levy) The Community Standards page on Facebook lists areas that they policies cover including: violence, criminal behavior, safety, objectionable content, respect of intellectual property, and authenticity. Some of the problems with enforcing this are what some people consider objectionable, others consider an expression of free speech. How is that decision made can be controversial. One plan is to use artificial intelligence programs to find objectionable content using programming tools. This is in process, however many think posters will be able to subvert it by changing up their language. Also, it can take day or even weeks to remove content that is clearly out of line. In that time frame, the damage can already be done as an enormous number of people could have seen it.
The dam really opened in 2017 when the news broke that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election by posting content intended to influence American citizens choice of candidate. In a New York Times article “Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone”. Mike Isaac and Daisuke Wakabayashi state, “For Facebook, the problem is less straightforward than finding Russia-linked pages and taking down content. Executives worry about how stifling speech from non-American entities could set a precedent on the social network — and how it could potentially be used against other groups in the future. So Facebook has focused on the issue of authenticity — or the fact that the Russian agencies did not identify themselves as such — as a reason for taking down the accounts. ‘Many of these ads did not violate our content policies,” Elliot Schrage, vice president of policy and communications at Facebook, said in a company blog post earlier this month. ‘That means that for most of them, if they had been run by authentic individuals, anywhere, they could have remained on the platform’.” Congress has now introduced bills that will require internet companies to reveal who is placing political ads. This may help for those who pay attention to those things. But in my opinion, placing these ads at all can fuel conspiracy theorists. Though, I do concede that Facebook is walking a fine line between free speech and slander.
Then it came to light that a political data firm hired by Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 had obtained access to the data of Facebook users. How could that happen when Zuckerberg himself assured the American public that Facebook didn’t sell data to anyone? The data in question included user identities, friends, and items they had “liked”. A psychology professor, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, built an app in 2014 in which users took a personality survey and downloaded the app. The app then took private information from their profiles and those of their friends. (Granville). The users who participated in the survey were told their data would be collected for academic use. But no one had said friend’s data would be collected nor were the friend’s asked permission. Granville goes onto say, “Facebook in recent days has insisted that what Cambridge did was not a data breach, because it routinely allows researchers to have access to user data for academic purposes — and users consent to this access when they create a Facebook account. But Facebook prohibits this kind of data to be sold or transferred ‘to any ad network, data broker or other advertising or monetization-related service’ .” So what responsibility does Facebook have for preventing this sort of breach?
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