October 8, 2021

So it turns out Facebook is the source of all ills. Whew. We’re off the hook.

Body shaming? Facebook. Civil unrest? Facebook. The anti-vax foolishness? Facebook again.

Evidence that the world’s largest social media network pedals in, and even amplifies, misinformation and divisiveness exploded this week when Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, leaked internal company documents and testified before a Congressional committee. Among other things, she asserted, Facebook’s algorithms purposely favor content that polarizes because it boosts usage and, therefore, revenue. The company’s own researchers found that Instagram, a Facebook-owned social-media site popular among teens, fosters body-shaming and insecurity.

In pursuit of profit, she said, “Facebook harms children, sows division and undermines democracy,” as NPR put it.

A bunch of Silicon Valley computer nerds do all that? Really?

This is no defense of Facebook and the contemptible greedheads who run it. Their arrogance is unparalleled and their citizenship awful. (Or absent entirely.) But by blaming them for all of society’s ills we avoid a more unpleasant truth: The fault is ours.

We chose to participate. We choose to exercise no judgment. We choose to believe nonsense.

We always have. Facebook pursues clicks by emphasizing our uglier sides. TV news did that decades ago; the morbid “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” approach is now so ubiquitous we may not realize it’s there.

Newspapers aren’t off the hook, either. Facebook divides us and exacerbates ethnic violence; Hearst’s newspapers helped jingo us to war in 1898 — boosting sales in the process. Facebook enables conspiracy theories; the so-called yellow journalists of the 19th Century did that by blaming Spain — falsely, most likely — for destroying an American ship and starting the Spanish-American War.

The schlocky “penny dreadful” novels in Victorian England — offering a steady diet of crime, conflict and revolution — were blamed for a rise in violence and suicide. They were cheap and, therefore, widely read. Sound familiar?

Congress is shocked that Instagram body-shames teens. Didn’t “Baywatch” and “Charlie’s Angels” do that in a previous generation’s medium?

Social media distorted the 2020 presidential election. Television distorted the one in 1960. By airing live debates for the first time, a new and powerful medium let voters see and hear — and be swayed to vote for — handsome John F. Kennedy.

Long before social media accused Hillary Clinton of running a satanic sex cult from a Connecticut Avenue pizza joint, our forefathers — using the social-media tools of their day, pamphlets — accused women of satanic witchcraft in Connecticut (and, later, Salem).

Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has 352 million Instagram followers, making him the most-followed influencer in the world. A more consequential social-media star lived five centuries before: Martin Luther, the 16th Century theologian. Luther’s 95 Theses — condemning practices in the Roman Catholic Church — changed the world. That’s influence.

So how did Luther share them? He posted them, of course, most likely on a church door — his era’s version of a Facebook wall. Luther’s critics would have surely denounced him for spreading fake news. His ideas proliferated — thanks to a crazy. new technology: the printing press.

Facebook creates division and discord. The religious conflict spurred by Luther’s post has claimed millions.

Still not convinced of Martin Luther’s prescience? Consider this: the 95 Theses is a listicle. Luther beat BuzzFeed by five centuries.

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Precedent doesn’t absolve bad behavior. Shame on Facebook for not filtering dangerous and disproven conspiracy theories. Shame on Facebook for hiding behind a law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — that gives it more legal protections than traditional publishers. Shame on it for misleading the public, for incentivizing anger and for capitalizing on ethnic hate.

But shame, too, on “Baywatch,” “Charlie’s Angels” and their ilk for showcasing untenable body images. Shame on Hearst and Pulitzer then, and the National Enquirer and the New York Post now, for dumbing down to sell a few papers. Shame on the demagogues who spread hate and lies on the radio when that medium was new to America.

Facebook seems worse because of its scale. But those who peddled hate on the radio in the 1930s, “Charlie’s Angels” on TV in the 1970s, and so on, didn’t limit themselves out of shame or decency. They were limited by their technology. Today’s social media networks don’t have those limits.

We all know that Gordon Gekko declared greed good in 1987’s Wall Street. And, yeah, deep down we know it probably isn’t. One thing is for sure, though: It’s common.

***

The falsehoods that Facebook spreads can’t be intrinsically dangerous if some of us get it right. About 14% of eligible Americans say they won’t get vaccinated, according to some polls, and surely many of them have been influenced by false social media posts (and the indifference of social media networks that allow them). But that leaves 86% of us who either have, will or might do the right thing. If all of us have been exposed to the same nonsense on social media, how can the nonsense itself be impenetrable? The problem is people, not platform.

It would be swell if social media networks did the right thing. (Presumably they will have first counted their money and realized they have enough.) Until that happens, this is on us.

If you’re being body-shamed by Instagram, and if you know it, there is a solution. It does not involve whistleblowers. It does not require Congressional intervention. It is this: Turn it off.

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Many journalism schools now grapple with teaching media literacy, hoping their students will understand what’s real and what’s fake. It shouldn’t be that hard. Just consider the source. If something is on social media or elsewhere online — or offline — comes from a news organization that was credible before the web existed, it’s probably credible now. The medium doesn’t change that. (There are also news sites that didn’t exist before the web but that have proven their credibility. ProPublica, Bloomberg and Axios come to mind.)

If something comes from a “news” organization you’ve never heard of, be careful. Likewise with those sites your racist uncle quotes.

There’s little downside to an approach that assumes a source is not credible until it has proven that it is. You might bypass a good, truthful story on a site you haven’t heard of. But so what? Just wait a few minutes and one of the known sites will pick it up.

We don’t need a whistleblower to tell us Facebook cares only about itself. It’s not new. It’s not beyond our control. Just treat it like “Baywatch.” Treat it like your racist uncle’s rantings at the Thanksgiving table. It’ll go away, and something will replace it.

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Howard Saltz is Knight Innovator-in-Residence in the journalism faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, he is the former publisher and…
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