The Facebook Hearings over the past week have raised a lot of questions. What we really need to be asking, however, is this: can Facebook be fixed? And if so, how?
At the recent TED conference, a speaker by the name of Jaron Lanier announced that he doesn’t believe our species is going to survive unless we fix the way social media is created and used. He dubbed Facebook and Google “behaviour modification empires” who have trained us just as Pavlov trained his dogs:
“So if you have an animal in a cage, it might be candy and electric shocks. But if you have a smartphone, it’s not those things, it’s symbolic punishment and reward…You could train a dog to salivate just with the bell, just with the symbol. So on social networks, social punishment and social reward function as the punishment and reward…You get this little thrill — “Somebody liked my stuff and it’s being repeated.” Or the punishment: “Oh my God, they don’t like me, maybe somebody else is more popular, oh my God.” So you have those two very common feelings, and they’re doled out in such a way that you get caught in this loop.”
But at least Pavlov’s dogs knew that when that bell rang they were getting fed, it doesn’t seem like the senators investigating Zuckerberg know when or if Facebook is ever going to feed them. A large part of the hearing basically went like a Facebook 101 lecture. Twitter sums up the feel pretty well:
“Mr. Zuckerberg, a magazine i recently opened came with a floppy disk offering me 30 free hours of something called America On-Line. Is that the same as Facebook?” pic.twitter.com/U7pqpUhEhQ
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) April 10, 2018
Wired did an article on why this questioning isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it got Zuckerberg to explain exactly how Facebook actually works. And it’s not. If a 5+ hour hearing on Facebook is what was needed for lawmakers to be able to understand the workings of the platform enough to be able to legislate around it, then it will be worth it.
The part that concerns me, however, is when it became glaringly obvious that there are parts of Facebook that even the Zucc doesn’t understand. Zuckerberg has told congress that he will “follow up” on 43 issues which he was unable to answer at the time. These range from whether or not Facebook track’s a user’s browsing activity even when they’re logged off, to whether or not Facebook employee’s worked alongside Cambridge Analytica on that massive data breach everyone’s been talking about. While it is possible Zucc’s lying in order to avoid the question, lying to congress is still illegal even though he wasn’t under oath. But no explanation for this is better than the other; either he was trying to deceive the public, or Zuckerberg doesn’t fully understand the ways the tools that he created actually function.
At the hearing, Senator Bill Nelson warned Zuckerberg:
“Let me just cut to the chase. If you and other social media companies do not get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy anymore.”
But how can we trust Zuckerberg to get his act in order? The man has been apologising for 14 years. Every time a new scandal comes out he just says he’s “blindsided” and starts the apology tour all over again. We can’t keep expecting Zucc to change. The man himself called people who trust him with their data “dumb fucks”.
So what hope do we have? Jaron Lanier suggests moving social media from an ad-based revenue model, to a subscription model like that of Netflix and Spotify. However, Facebook seems pretty stuck in its data mining ways. The same goes for Google. Our only hope in this area would be if a subscription-based competitor rose up and overtook Facebook, but it’s just as likely Facebook will just buy them out like it bought Instagram and Whatsapp.
I’m sorry to be a negative Nancy but the more I read about Facebook and data, the more doomed I feel. However, the best thing we can all do is be involved politically, be educated, and vote for lawmakers who are going to protect our interests. The law is slow, but it will catch up if it’s made to.