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Posted: October 10, 2021

A settling of scores is looming for social media

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

So, what do we do about Facebook?

That’s just what a US congressional committee is trying to figure out now with Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous invention that started out as a Harvard dating service and morphed into an electronic behemoth with toxic tentacles around the world.

At latest count, Facebook has almost three billion active users around the globe, almost half the world’s population, and when you throw in other social media companies Facebook owns like Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, that’s an immense number of users and an immense amount of power.

And that’s bugging a lot of people these days, hence the congressional investigation.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, told the congressional hearing that Facebook “puts its astronomical profits before people . . . harms children, stokes division and weakens democracy.”

Other critics aren’t so gentle. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” said former Facebook vice-president Chamath Palihapitiya. Writing in The Atlantic, author Adrienne LaFrance said: “No one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can control the product he made. I’ve come to realize that Facebook is not a media company. It’s a Doomsday Machine.”

You read that correctly, a Doomsday machine!

Now, aren’t we going a little far here? At this point, I have a confession to make. I’m a sometime Facebook user. If you want to think that gives me a bias in favour of Facebook, go ahead and think that though I can assure you you’re wrong. Hopefully as a Facebook user, I have a better understanding of the product, including the good and the bad.

Obviously, there must be something good about Facebook or it wouldn’t have almost three billion users. Is posting recipes on Facebook such a bad thing? The same for sending pictures of your children, your pet, your new house, your vehicle, the list is endless. That’s the “social” in social media and without it the world would be a drab and dreary place and so would we.

But it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing and that’s where Facebook gets into trouble because we all crave social contact and Facebook makes it so damn easy and as social contact becomes endless at the push of a button, we get distracted and soon our desire for social contact becomes unquenchable and addiction rears its ugly head.

The American Journal of Psychiatry estimates that the average American spends 40 minutes-a-day on Facebook and more than 50% of 18 to 24-year-olds go on Facebook as soon as they wake up. Canadian numbers are likely the same or higher as Canadians are renowned for being the top smartphone users in the world.

Psychologists identify Facebook as a cause of social insecurity in young users increasingly isolated in their Facebook bubble of “friends” instead of being involved in society as a whole. Frustration can build quickly in the Facebook bubble because one can never have enough friends or keep up with their so-called friends. This can lead to anger and resentment – and in severe cases – depression and suicide in compulsive Facebook users.

Consequently, calls are growing to regulate Facebook and its family of social media companies, a move bitterly opposed by Zuckerberg and other social media providers. They argue “free speech” is the Crown jewel of democracy and how can freedom of speech be reconciled with regulation of Facebook and other social media companies?

But in the wake of the so-called “insurrection” at the Capital Building in Washington DC Jan. 6, attitudes are changing quickly and voices growing louder that it is possible to have too much of a good thing especially when many of the insurrectionists are known to have communicated by Facebook and Twitter. You could liken what’s happening to a classic American western. Free speech and social media have arrived in town and the sheriff of Dodge doesn’t like it. Who’s going to win this shootout?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I won’t be surprised to see government “regulation” of Facebook in the future. If I’m wrong, they might as well make Mark Zuckerberg president!

– Gerry Warner is a retired journalist, who has an aversion to shootouts.

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