With last week’s testimony on Capitol Hill to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, and its reveal that 126 million Americans may have been exposed to content generated by Russian government-linked troll farms related to the 2016 US election cycle, Facebook has everyone and their mother playing armchair quarterback.
But Facebook’s woes going forward may very well be solved by simply borrowing from the playbook of the company sitting next to them in the Senate chamber—"don’t be evil."
Facebook and its very small universe of large-scale social networks have historically taken the position that they are merely technology platforms, not media properties—simply conduits for communication. Specifically in Facebook’s case, according to a recent S-1 filing, they are on "a social mission—to make the world more open and connected." They may have adopted this motto because it was a better marketing story, or because it was easier, or that they truly take the optimistic view that the good types of connections will outweigh the bad.
Their somewhat noble mission seems to stem from the hacker credo from a few decades ago that "information should be free." Theoretically, it makes sense. For example, telephone companies don’t attempt to control how you speak on the phone and to whom, and neither do mail carriers, so why should the providers of another communication method? However, the brutal truth is that Facebook and other social platforms do not in fact actually espouse that information should be free. In reality, information is controlled by the highest bidder, and neutrality is very much compromised in favor of business. And therein folks, lies the problem.
What originally was designed as a platform to connect people, the ultimate goal has long ago been hijacked by the inevitable pressure of capitalism, plain and simple. The focus for some time has been on how to keep a user on the platform for another few seconds or minutes, for the specific purpose of serving more ads or helping their business customers shift more product. In the reality of the world, driven by profit and shareholders, who can blame Facebook, et al?
But in a world now rife with state-sponsored hackers, social networks and platforms can no longer be considered neutral. Taking such an optimistic view is at best naive, at worst self-serving. Providers of other communication methods do support (implicitly or explicitly) mechanisms for controlling what people use them for. The difference between them and social networks is that Facebook and others have not succumbed easily to state and regulatory control.
For Facebook in particular, it’s not a relatively difficult task to figure out how to keep your eyeballs stuck to a screen a little bit longer—even a small incremental change generates piles of profit. However, affecting behavioral change on negative expressions of humanity may be exponentially harder, especially without a comparable "holy grail" business value metric or KPI. But to simply dismiss this profound responsibility is egregious, particularly when you have assembled some of the greatest minds on human behavior online.
So, what’s the solution?
Child predators, financial hackers, gender bullies, suicide goaders, political sock puppets and any bad actors involved in what we perceive to be deeply damaging social behavior can be, and in many cases have been mapped out into jigsaw indicators by Jared Cohen and his team at Jigsaw. Using the power of machine learning and social networking engineers, all aspects of communication may actually be cracked by these teams, creating platforms where constructive and empowering engagement could take place, resulting in better human interaction online. Unfortunately, even when this was attempted on a smaller scale, such as during the Arab Spring uprising, one can’t help but to feel that these are movements that hijack social networks for a better purpose, but not a fundamental shift in the social network’s efforts or purpose.
Some of the blame falls squarely on Silicon Valley, a beacon of innovation, clearly focused on tangential behavioral change that only truly benefit their pay masters, and not the people they claim to want to empower. A false dawn indeed, and a huge amount of effort and talent wasted at the altar of consumerism cloaked in lofty mission statements of furthering humanity.
I wonder, will the old hacker credo resurface en masse soon? Is it still present in a backroom in these monoliths, tinkering away at a plan to hijack the network? Moreover, Facebook, how can you evolve to a place where you’re not considered evil or at least complicit? You’ll need to figure that out, post-haste, unless you want to find yourself in the heap with Friendster.
Blaise Grimes-Viort is Chief Services Officer at The Social Element.