Facebook at 20: From hope to disillusionment

Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, is 20 years old. More than 3 billion people are active on their Facebook page at least once a month — more than one in three people on the planet. That’s quite the success story.

But just a few days before its 20th anniversary, any celebratory mood was dampened when Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced harsh criticism at a hearing before the US Senate. “You have blood on your hands,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham shouted at Zuckerberg. “You have a product that’s killing people.”

The subject of the hearing on January 31 was the failure of major internet platforms to protect children and young people. Democrat Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed the criticism in a nutshell.

“Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk,” he said in his opening remarks.

The dangers of social media are now being widely discussed. In the US, it is being held partly responsible for a mental health crisis among young people.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, to discuss child safety
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on child safety on January 31Image: Susan Walsh/AP/picture alliance

In an interview with DW, Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist and a specialist on risk research, listed some of the harmful effects of social media. And it’s not just that more and more people are finding it harder and harder to concentrate. “Some studies have shown an increase in insecurity, low self-esteem, depression and even suicidal thoughts,” he said.

In the US, for example, another indicator could be the increased suicide rate among people between the ages of 10 and 25, which shot up by 60% in the decade between 2011 and 2021.

A hopeful start for social networking

And yet Facebook started out so harmlessly. Those were the early days of the digital revolution, when the internet promised transparency and participation. While traditional media once operated on the model of communicating from one to the many, this new form — communicating from everyone to everyone — seemed to bring more freedom, participation, and democracy.

Facebook was an exciting social network where people could quickly find like-minded people, share their vacation photos and stay up-to-date with what their friends were up to. “In the beginning, Facebook was seen as having a rather altruistic mission: people hoped that connecting people would make the world a better place,” recalled Berlin-based media scientist Martin Emmer.

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But it became a network with far-reaching consequences. Take, for example, the great hopes initially raised by the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Because of the network’s role in organizing demonstrations and resistance, it was sometimes called the “Facebook revolution.”

Facebook, especially in tandem with the rapid advancement of the smartphone, addressed one of the oldest of human needs with the most cutting-edge technology. “Humans are social creatures,” said Emmer. “And these platforms have achieved something unlike any other medium before them: they allow us to interact with other people at many different levels, subtly calibrated according to different types of friends. They allow us to take part in the lives of others.”

Caught between empowerment and disempowerment

However, there is a price for the use of the network’s infrastructure: users pay twice — with their data and with their attention span.

Attention is a scarce commodity, and advertisers are more than happy to pay for it. Especially when precise personality profiles make it possible to deliver messages to potential customers with pinpoint accuracy.

This is why platform providers collect as much data as possible from their users, with every like providing another data point. And with detailed knowledge of users’ interests, likes and dislikes, timelines can be flooded with whatever kind of content will keep users on the platform for as long as possible.

For a long time, the impact this had on individuals and society was of no concern to those running the platforms. The growing polarization of society, the increasing viciousness of political discussions, the proliferation of the wildest conspiracy theories — all of this has been linked with Facebook and other platforms.

Thanks to their communication power, social networks can also be exploited for political purposes. In 2016, allegations were made that Russia had used Facebook to influence the outcome of presidential elections. Two years later, Facebook became embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Largely without the knowledge of its users, the company had analyzed the data of around 50 million Facebook profiles, with the aim being to influence voter behavior with highly personalized messages. Facebook groups like “Stop the Steal” also played a role in the 2020 US presidential election, helping former President Donald Trump to propagate the myth of a stolen vote.

AI, social media could influence mega election year

2024 will be a major election year. Over half of the world’s population will be going to the polls: in India and Indonesia, in Pakistan and Russia, in the European Union and in the United States. And Jaron Lanier, a US computer scientist and technology critic, is worried. 

“The rise of deepfakes from AI and other new applications of technology to manipulate people are coming about, and I think many people will not be prepared for that,” Lanier told DW. Back in 2018, Lanier warned of the dangers of social media in his book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

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But on the positive side, Lanier also believes many people are slowly becoming aware of how they are being manipulated. “Whether the number of people who are is enough to make a difference, I don’t know,” he said.

Berlin-based network scientist Philipp Lorenz-Spreen agrees that societies have allowed data companies to dictate the terms for too long. “For 20 years now, we have allowed Web 2.0, the internet in which everyone can share content, to develop into something that is almost entirely commercial,” he said. “We have allowed this attention economy to proliferate.”

Politicians playing catch-up with tech giants

Meanwhile, politicians have been waking up and trying to catch up in the race with the technology giants. In 2022, the European Union passed the Digital Services Act. The aim is to speed up the removal of illegal content, such as hate speech. It also seeks to better protect the fundamental rights of users — including freedom of speech.

In addition, researchers will finally get access to data from the internet giants. “There’s progress being made toward transparency so that we can open up this black box a little and see how this machine works,” said a delighted Lorenz-Spreen.

However it works, it’s extremely profitable. Facebook’s parent company Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, earned so much money from advertising in the last quarter of 2023 that Meta decided for the first time to pay out dividends to its shareholders on its 20th anniversary. For them, at least, there may be something to celebrate after all.

This article was originally written in German.

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