Rajiv Prakash Saxena

The world may have just witnessed a historic turning – point moment for (or rather against) Facebook, the hugely dominant both – face and immense force of the social media, which can singlehandedly change perceptions and can make difference in outcomes and change the destiny of the nation – like Brexit and 2016 US elections. Within 48 hours last week, Facebook suffered a succession of big blows and saw the world gain high awareness of this behemoth’s dangerous impacts on the world.

On October. 3rd, 2021 a former Facebook project manager gave a long TV interview explaining how the company, having done research and known about the negative impacts that Instagram, its subsidiary company, has on young girls in particular, continues to optimise its algorithms for monetary gain at the expense of people’s well-being–physical health and mental wellbeing. The next day, by coincidence, the whole Facebook – WhatsApp – Instagram network crashed for six hours, impacting economic activity as well as social communications, raising awareness of the platforms’ stranglehold on the world. Only one global entity was delighted and that was Twitter!

Another day later, the same former Facebook manager-turned-whistleblower, Ms. Frances Haugen, gave a long deposition to a US Senate subcommittee that was broadcast live on CNN and other TV networks. It resulted in a rare wide agreement among policymakers and observers that something serious must be done about the Facebook.

First, what ills and evils is Facebook accused of or blamed for? There are mainly two (big) issues: Facebook’s worldwide impact and monopolistic activity; and its algorithms, which try to maximise profit (by keeping people on the platform as long as possible and constantly bombarding them with advertisements) and pay little regard to people’s well-being. Advertisements give revenue to the behemoth in huge numbers.

According to statista.com, Facebook today has 2.9 billion active users, WhatsApp has about 2 billion monthly users, and Instagram has 1.1 billion users, many of them common between the three.

Moreover, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, milks the personal data they collect on their users, raising data privacy issues. One Facebook consultant, who was formerly a CIA officer, said: “Facebook knows you better than the CIA ever will, while Facebook knows more about you than you know about yourself.” The best informed are the robbers in your locality, if they are also on your friend’s list. They are aware of your gifts and purchases and latest jewelry addition and your latest holiday trip.

“Facebook is for people you went to high school with, Twitter is for people you wish you went to high school with” is one quote I’ve heard about the difference. When almost three billion people suddenly found themselves locked out of their Facebook accounts on 4th October, along with WhatsApp and Instagram, it seemed like good news for the social media giant’s chief rival.

“Hello literally everyone,” Twitter’s official account tweeted as users flooded on to the site. In just 25 minutes, Google search traffic for the twitter site had risen by 50%. By the time Twitter posted its comment, search traffic had doubled. Facebook is good for keeping in touch with people you already know, and reconnecting with people from your past. Twitter allows you to discover new people with similar interests to yourself, and potentially build new personal or professional relationships. This makes Twitter more potentially useful than Facebook for business purposes such as looking for a job, trying to promote your work, making business contacts, exchanging information… (more).

Facebook has been accused of having no moral compass and of holding a “profit-driven amorality.” Indeed, it has done little to prevent villains from using its pages for criminal activity, ranging from ethnic cleansing (against the Rohingya in Myanmar and other oppressed minorities) to human trafficking and drug cartel killings.

Closer to us, it has known about the mental ills that edited and glamourised Instagram photos have on young girls (depression, anorexia, etc.), not to mention the addictiveness of its platforms, and it has done little to redress these serious effects. It creates a sense of jealousy and encourages body shaming and overuse of medicines to become slim and addicted to weight losing drugs.

It has done little to prevent villains from using its pages for criminal activity, ranging from ethnic cleansing to human trafficking and drug cartel killings. It was early morning when Achintya Das, a 55 year old teacher in the city of Comilla in Bangladesh, was woken by the ringing bell of his mobile phone. On the other end of the line was a fearful, terror stricken voice. ‘Come quickly’, the local told him, something very grave had happened. A Quran had been found in the make shift Pandal, they had recently erected for the upcoming Hindu festival of Durga puja. The Islamic book had been placed on a statue of the Hindu god and was posted on the Facebook and became viral and Facebook did not take any action to stop this post becoming viral. It promoted to get more eyeballs and thus fueled major conflicts in Bangladesh and it exported reactions in 130 nations by the Isakson temples located across the globe.

Facebook has also done everything it can to crush competitors. For example, it greatly reduces the visibility of posts that take the user outside its platform, such as to YouTube, Twitter or elsewhere. It also buys content from news companies and independent providers, who need that money and are thus unlikely to do or say anything that will upset Facebook; as a result, a third of Americans consume news from within Facebook. They are not allowed to move out to other platforms.

And if that were not enough, the company is working hard on what Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg calls “a metaverse,” which will include virtual reality, to keep the user living completely and exclusively within this Facebook “meta / universe.”

That’s a lot of bad news. The good news is that there is growing consensus that something needs to be done. But what exactly?

Observers are currently divided into two main ideas. One group, including Haugen, believes that Facebook must be forced to modify its algorithms to ensure people, especially youngsters’, well-being. Various steps need to be taken, including getting rid of social media for young kids – Instagram put on hold its plan to release a version for kids younger than 13, but Facebook does currently have the Messenger Kids app for six to 12-year-olds. They also want to filter images that lead to low self-esteem or to hate and anger (two emotions that the current algorithms inadvertently promote, as hate-filled and angry posts tend to be shared a lot by users), as well as other such modifications.

The second group calls for breaking up Facebook, or at the very least splitting WhatsApp and Instagram from it and preventing any other similar mergers or takeovers. Even this, they say, will not be enough; it will need to be strengthened by support for smaller competitors, using tax breaks, subsidies and other incentives.

In the meantime, we laypeople, especially educators and media specialists, can do some important things to help reduce the negative effects of Facebook and Instagram. In Finland, elementary school children are taught how to identify fake stories, altered photos, clickbait (to prevent Pegasus type snooping) and hate – inducing content. Students are trained and then tested on analysing online content. Likewise, public libraries, colleges and universities could offer free workshops to adults on how to identify misinformation and how to avoid getting addicted to the social media and digital content and devices.

How and why Facebook (with Instagram and WhatsApp) was able to grip and affect nearly half of humanity is a big and wide issue for sociologists to analyse for years to come. Whatever the causes and factors, we need to act now at various levels, for our world is being crushed.

India also seeks information on technology and processes used by the Facebook and how it is using for content moderation and how they are preventing online harm of minds and perception creation. Facebook is also being questioned on the due diligence to be followed under Rule 3 of the new IT rules. The central government is very alarmed by the whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations about the India experiment. A dummy user’s feed was filled with fake news and hate news within 3 weeks of opening an account.

Haugen’s revelations have also flagged promotion of violent and provocative posts, especially anti – Muslim content on the Facebook India platform. US lawmakers are investigating how Facebook Inc., and other online social media platforms shape user’s worldview are considering new rules and algorithms for artificial intelligence programs blamed for spreading malicious content for all of us to digest day in and day out.

Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, alleged earlier this month that the social media behemoth allocated only 13% of its budget to curb misinformation on its platform outside of US, including in India, where it has its largest user base, citing internal documents of the company. India with over 530 million users, according to the government data, is the largest market in terms of users for Facebook. In contrast, the US has around 200 million users and gets a disproportionate 87% allocation in its budget to curb misinformation.

Haugen has submitted the papers to the US SEC and has also deposed before the US Senate and the UK Parliament. Marc has been under intense fire, after its whistleblower  made public a series of documents now dubbed as ‘Facebook Papers’, and it has been criticised and accused of putting profit ahead of  user safety, including that of children.

Will metaserve Facebook see the light of the day? Time will give the answer. But people are refraining themselves from Facebook in change of heart.

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