4 min read.Updated: 11 Oct 2021, 12:14 AM ISTManu Joseph
The success of its social media platforms has deprived an old aristocracy of influence over global opinion
Is Facebook like a cigarette, or merely an art gallery of human lungs? Is it a drug that harms us, or just memoirs of addicts, and some cat pictures? Were we better off when not all of us were allowed to speak to all of us, when a handful of middlemen told us who we are, what we must do, who we must vote for, which film we should watch, and which is the best restaurant in town? Was the world protected by inefficient communication and is it now being destroyed by too much democracy? Are influencers really influential, or are they people we have employed to make us do what we actually want to?
These questions rise again as Facebook is rattled by yet another deposition by a former employee who has accused the corporation of harming our mental health. Frances Haugen is persuasive. A computer engineer, she had joined Facebook, she says, to reform it. After working there, she felt the company did not aspire to be ethical. To prove that, she took hundreds of pages of confidential material with her when she quit.
What she says about the company is not new: Facebook wants you to be enthralled by its content, and it knows that enthralling content is often melodramatic, trashy and hateful. The longer you stay hooked on Facebook, the more ads it can aim at you. Haugen also invokes “children". She says Facebook’s own research says that Instagram makes adolescent girls feel worse about themselves.
Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, has defended himself through an inefficient form of communication known as sound logic. Yet, he did not state the hostile fact that the world was already formed before he created Facebook, that he only made the mirror, not your face. What he did say was that his company does not gain from hate as much as people think. “We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content."
This is true. A few years ago, I remember, when an editorial meeting was in progress, a media tycoon walked in, looked at us in an amused way and guessed, correctly, that we were planning something nasty about the nation. He told us advertisers hate that; no advertiser wants to advertise on a page filled with accidents, riots, murders, scams and a bad prognosis of the world. Long before Facebook, there was journalism and its chief purpose was to keep showing what was wrong with the world. It is a mystery why some people thought it would be a good idea to sell soaps and cars on such a joyless platform.
The prevailing contempt for Facebook is the triumph of a Western intellectual fellowship, which includes conventional media. In the confluence of their powerful reasons, one strand is the very objective of their good journalism–challenge the powerful. Facebook controls the time of billions of people. Even if we grant that the hyper-democracy of social media only amplifies human nature and insanity, the amplification itself need not be innocent. Also, the relentless sanctimony of the press puts considerable pressure on a giant corporation to do what is right.
The other reasons why Facebook gets so much media flak are more interesting. Their commercial future is bleak. Even the venerated New York Times (NYT), which has made some kind of a recovery, is not what it used to be. But their financial ruin is a very small part of the worst that has happened to them. Few people have a measure of how influential the Western media was. Their journalists could influence elections, their film critics could decide the fate of movies, their food critics could shape tastes, and their analysts told other countries what they must do (mainly, ‘Be more like us’). Heads of state courted them; actors called them; billionaires begged them for favours.
But social media has ended their age of influence, and replaced it with an age of corroboration, diminishing the relevance of journalism. Even though it is a misconception that online advertising has grown at the expense of conventional media ad revenues, that is the general perception among many journalists. And Facebook is the face of the revolution that beheaded the old nobility that once interpreted the world for the world.
The accusation that Facebook has “polarized" society emerges from this grouse. Polarization is merely a sign that one set of people no longer has a monopoly on ideas.
It is hard to believe that not long ago, Facebook was seen as an angelic force—when American political results were aligned with what the intellectual system wanted. When Barack Obama used Facebook to win the US presidential election, keepers of America’s conscience did not seem to fear data-mining, which was what Obama’s campaign did. Take this celebratory report of 9 November 2008 in the NYT, ‘How Obama tapped into social network’s power’. It said that Obama’s data mining was so good, when he became president, he would “…have not just a political base, but a database, millions of names of supporters who can be engaged almost instantly. And there’s every reason to believe that he will use the network not just to campaign, but to govern."
But then when Donald Trump’s campaign used social media even more effectively, Facebook suddenly became evil.
So, the old interpreters of the world were robbed of their influence by a movement led by Facebook, but its defamation today points to the enduring influence of the class it slayed. This irony is enabled by the power of negativity. This is the fundamental force in all our stories, in the success of Facebook, and in every effort made by one human to say something remarkable to another.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’
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