Everybody’s upset about how terrible Facebook is, and everybody’s in agreement that Facebook could have, would have, should have done infinitely more to prevent all the current horrors: from American election conspiracies to anti-vax madness to teenage girls’ body issues.
I hate to disagree with the solitary view that unites Democrats and Republicans at this moment—but I kind of do.
My friend the communication guru Scott Monty wrote on LinkedIn this week:
Saw a headline this morning: “Facebook Faces a P.R. Crisis.”
Make no mistake: This is not a PR crisis.
This is a business crisis. A crisis of ethics.
No amount of coverage, spin, or pro-Facebook content will change what ails the company.
One could argue that neither can engineering or programming. 👩💻
There is a profound ethical lapse at the company and it needs a moral compass. 🧭
The company needs new leadership.
Simply put, they have squandered what little trust people had in them …
The board and the current leadership should recognize the crisis they got themselves into and make way for a new team.
The world is watching.
I don’t disagree with Scott, exactly.
But I’ve been having this nagging question for quite some time now:
Fifteen years ago or whatever, Facebook created a mechanism that allowed every last crackpot in the world to become vastly better known and more influential than we were. Back then, most of us could only bug or bore our families, co-workers and neighbors. So suddenly, everybody friended everybody who would friend them back, remember? Already a writer for the Chicago Tribune and many other publications, I friended G. Gordon Liddy and Tucker Carlson—because I wanted to expand my reach. The husband of a work acquaintance of mine friended people he barely knew, including me, explaining, “I need the numbers!” Eventually we all did that—at least the most egomaniacal 33% of all human beings—and now one third of the world’s population is on Facebook.
And we passively expected this smug little, vapid little, Harvard-little pale-faced propellerhead frat boy Mark Zuckerberg to control the predictable, international Lord of the Flies human shit show would inevitably result? And furthermore, we now expect the next Facebook CEO to hold the keys to these impossible problems rooted in not in new technology but in ancient human psychology?
A buddy of mine keeps getting put in Facebook jail. He was thrown in the slammer first for basically saying over and over again that all Trump supporters should die of COVID. (He wasn’t big on Obama supporters, Hillary Clinton supporters, W. supporters and Bill Clinton supporters; bit of an authority problem with this one.) Now he’s on double-secret Facebook probation, so every time he says, “White Sox suck,” he gets thrown in the clink again, for “hate speech.” He’s in there more than he’s out—a Facebook jailbird. Maybe I’m dumb, but that’s about as smart as I expect Facebook to ever be, as it tries to use artificial intelligence to regulate the communications of three billion yahoos.
Short of giving each of us an editor and a personal fact-checker, as if we’re rookie newspaper columnists, what’s Facebook supposed to do? And don’t just mumble to me about “algorithms,” because I will rhetorically slap you in your phony face.
On the eve of the moon landing in 1969, my ad man old man wrote an appreciation of the folks who engineered the project. He began, “Perhaps the best way for anyone to try to understand the size of such an undertaking is not for us to list the thousands of problems that had to be overcome, but for you to simply go out in your backyard some night, look up, and try to imagine how you’d begin, if it were up to you.”
Making Facebook and other social media safe for well-intentioned adults and teenage girls—and unsafe for their opposites—is a lot harder of a job than going to the moon.
I don’t like Mark Zuckerberg either, but unless you believe he can really fix Facebook and Instagram in some economically sustainable way (and you don’t), you’re asking him to shut down his business. Founders do not shut down their businesses. And who is the moral giant, emotional genius and technological titan with whom Facebook’s board is going to replace Zuckerberg: Fareed Zakaria, Malcolm Gladwell, Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Sarah Silverman, Ted Lasso?
So for now, Zuckerberg is left to do the disingenuous dance that he did on an investor call Monday: saying that curbing hate speech and other badness on Facebook is difficult, without ever admitting it’s actually impossible. “We’re operating in around 150 languages around the world,” Zuckerberg said Monday, “there’s a lot of cultural nuance in this.” Ah, yes, I imagine there is. Added Zuckerberg, echoing the captain of the Titanic speaking to his crew as they lowered the last lifeboat: “I guess I just want to say to the team and the people who work on this that I’m really proud of the progress that they make.”
To sum up: Facebook is pretending the can fix this eventually, and you and I are pretending the same thing.
Meanwhile, I don’t know any parent who has forbidden a teenage daughter from being on Instagram—just a million parents who have talked about it very seriously. So where’s the New York Times piece that says, “By the time their daughter was eleven, David Murray and Cristie Bosch knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that SnapChat was negatively affecting her life. The two have had at least a dozen fights about it over the years, Mrs. Bosch arguing that if they didn’t pull the plug on SnapChat now, they’d never have a chance. And Mr. Murray, without disagreeing, routinely dismissed the recommendation as unreasonable and changed the subject. ‘What are going to do about dinner tonight?’ he said.”
Because condemning your teenage daughter to an inner-city Amish freak—or more likely to a subversive Insta-creep—that’s about as strategically sound a move as kissing a Facebook troll.
My father smelled cadaverine flesh all the way from Normandy to Berlin thanks to the pre-Facebook rise of Adolph Hitler. Also pre-Facebook, he chaperoned his Commie-phobic brothers through McCarthyism. He saw his beloved Detroit burn down in a decade in which JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated. He saw four dead in Ohio (and uncounted more in Vietnam). Saw Watergate, saw Oklahoma City, saw 9/11—all pre-Facebook. And along the way, raised three daughters troubled enough by growing up in this country’s culture without Instagram, thank you very much.
In addition to his sunny mottos, like “Never miss a sunrise,” and “Take care of the babies,” Dad also often said: “Man is a bad cat.”
You won’t fix Facebook until you fix that.