Facebook is ‘ripping apart the social fabric’

Conversation starter: The average person spends 135 minutes on social media per day (Statista).

Is Facebook destroying society? A former executive has revealed he feels “tremendous guilt” for helping to build the site — he claims it is “eroding the core foundations” of how we behave.

Facebook’s official mission statement is to “bring the world closer together”. But now some of its very builders suggest it does the opposite.

Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook vice president of user growth, slammed the site for “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”. He claimed that the way users are encouraged to compete for “likes” is creating a society with “no civil discourse, no cooperation; [but] misinformation, mistruth”.

He added that Facebook users are “programmed” to present their lives as unrealistically perfect and to make posts that gain “fake” popularity. But this only makes them feel “vacant and empty”.

Palihapitiya himself has stopped using the network and has even banned his children too.

Other former insiders are also critical. Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, claims the social network was intentionally designed to exploit “vulnerability” in human psychology, and to “consume” as much of its users’ attention as possible.

Soon Facebook may have to deal with more than just criticism. Today a UK watchdog advised the British government that social media companies which fail to remove racist, extremist, or sexual abuse content should be fined or prosecuted.

This proposal would cast Facebook as a publisher rather than a platform — requiring it to take responsibility for all content posted on the site.

This new threat adds to other controversies which have rocked the company this year. In October it admitted that 126 million American users were exposed to Russian propaganda interfering with the US election.

This is part of a wider problem of social networks spreading fake news — an issue some think Facebook has not done enough to tackle.

In spite of all this Facebook continues grow. It has been valued at more than $500 billion and by September this year it had connected more than two billion users across the globe.

But is Facebook really ripping society apart?

Anti-social network

Of course, say some. The constant pressure to gain “likes” and virtual popularity stops people forming genuine personal relationships in the real world. What is more, the pressure to conform with peers online pushes users into echo chambers where any difference of opinion is ruthlessly shut down or simply ignored — this is no sign of a healthy society.

What nonsense, others respond. We must not forget the basic good that Facebook does. It brings people together from across the world who would otherwise never meet. It reconnects old friends who have lost touch. And it lets people band together for common causes. It cannot be destroying society when its fundamental use is to create social connections where they did not previously exist.

You Decide

  1. Does social media do more harm than good?
  2. Could you live without your phone for a week?

Activities

  1. Imagine you had to design a brand new social network website from scratch. What special features would it have? How would users interact with each other? Would it be very different from Facebook, or similar?
  2. Do some research into previous social networks that have failed. You might look into old websites like Bebo and Myspace. Why do you think those social networks failed? By comparison, why has Facebook been so successful? Do you think people will ever stop using Facebook?

Some People Say...

“Everyone hates Facebook, and everyone is on it.”

Bo Burnham

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Chamath Palihapitiya joined Facebook when it was just over a year old, and worked there for six years. His role was to devise ways to increase the user base. When he left in 2011 it had less than a billion users. It now has over two billion. This makes it the most popular social network worldwide. By contrast, Twitter has less than 400 million users.
What do we not know?
Whether the number of Facebook’s users will continue to grow at its current rate. In 2014 researchers predicted that Facebook would lose 80% of all its users by 2017. In fact, Facebook has attracted hundreds of millions more.

Word Watch

UK watchdog
The Committee on Standards in Public Life. (A non-departmental public body.)
126 million
There are around 250,000 million people eligible to vote in America, meaning that up to half of the electorate may have been exposed to Russian propaganda.
Fake news
Often extremely sensational and controversial false stories. For example, during the US election a fake story circulated on social media claiming that Hillary Clinton had suffered a fatal heart attack.
$500 billion
This makes it one of the most valuable companies in the world — although it is still behind Apple and Alphabet (Google’s holding company).
Two billion users
There are 7.6 billion people in the world, so over a quarter of the global population use Facebook.
Echo chambers
A situation in which ideas, beliefs and opinions are reinforced by being repeatedly expressed. Facebook’s news feed algorithms promote content similar to that which users have already liked. So if someone likes a post which expresses a particular political view, they are increasingly likely to see similar posts appearing on their news feed.

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