What if I Ruled the World, or Maybe Just Facebook, Which Is Sort of the Same Thing

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Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin is pictured 29 April 1936

Why Should You Care NH

If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I’d probably be doing a lot of tossing and turning in my bed at night. His  beloved Facebook is under attack.

After all, if a Russian troll factory isn’t doing him serious damage, all that fake news has to be taking a toll. The whole concept he started back in college is now showing its true, destructive power. We’ve always known Facebook to be a force of nature, much more than the sum of its social networking parts. Think about flash mobs and the power of instant communication, think about the Arab spring and organizers’ ability to get the word out to the masses even in places with suppressive governments.

Bob Charest

This power has not been lost on governments and corporations. I can only wonder about the ways some users on Facebook groups have highjacked discussions on certain issues, how some people are being paid to change the public discourse in certain discussion groups. I have experienced firsthand how Facebook users on somebody’s payroll have weighed in on issues without being completely upfront about their compensated allegiance. We have all been played. That should become more obvious as the Russia story unfolds.

But Facebook has become something I think even Zuckerberg, the genius that he is, didn’t foresee. It can be a terrible force for destruction, and I didn’t have to leave the boundaries of New Hampshire to come up with some prime examples.

First of all, I must make two disclosures.  I do own Facebook stock. I don’t have enough to make me rich, but I have found it to be a good investment. Secondly, I have never been a fan of Zuckerberg’s, that opinion is somewhat influenced by the movie, “The Social Network,” especially the opening scene when the Zuckerberg character tells his about-to-be ex-girlfriend, who needs to study, “You don’t have to study … because you go to BU.” He ripped my heart out. (Go Terriers!) That may or may not be something he believes, but the level of arrogance depicted in that film is not going to win him friends, cyberfriends or otherwise.

Apart from that, Zuckerberg must realize he has created a monster. Much like another young prodigy writing many years before, Mary Wollstonescraft Shelley, Zuckerberg must feel this way when Shelley writes, in “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”: “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.”

We can do great damage to each other on Facebook. I have two sad but true examples.

Case No. 1: (I have changed names and any identifying information so as to minimize perpetuating any of the damage that has already been done.) A man by the name of John Doe is arrested in a northern town. On a local discussion board, someone writes. “Is that John Doe from town who was arrested yesterday the same John Doe that works as the teller at the bank?”

An innocent question? Hardly. Think about John Doe, especially if this John Doe is not the one who has been arrested. Someone in the Facebook discussion wisely suggested that a public discussion board is not the place to ask such a question. Someone else said such a question could ruin an innocent man’s reputation, and someone else said the post should be deleted.

Now this particular forum where the comment appeared has a Facebook administrator (someone who is part of the community and volunteers to monitor the site to make sure the posts conform to community standards), and a check back later in the day showed that the post had been deleted.

But in this day and age, those comments, while deleted, are still out there somewhere. (They still reside on my computer.) Big data preserves everything, and it wouldn’t surprise me that this information could easily be resurrected.

Case No. 2: A man driving to work is passed on a solid double line by a vehicle speeding in a school zone. The driver gets the make and model of the car, along with the registration plate number. He then posts this identifying information in a community forum on Facebook. Rather than other users telling the man that perhaps this isn’t such a good idea, others comment that yes, the other driver should be identified.  Some of these commenters insinuate the speeder is a jerk and needs to be outed.

(Now, this is an interesting issue, because New Hampshire has a driver privacy law. I plan a future column on this topic because while writing this column, it has come to my attention that certain websites provide identifying driver information for a fee.)

In the second case above, someone wisely mentioned that posting messages personally identifying people and their faults is a dangerous practice. As this person pointed out, it opens the door to false allegations.

One can only wonder how many lawsuits will be prompted by the public shaming that must occur as a matter of fact on Facebook.  Some lawyers probably have a cottage industry.

But getting back to our original topic, Zuckerberg has his work cut out for him. So far, Facebook’s response to the recent fake news claims and Russia investigation has been to adjust its algorithm that will rank people’s newsfeeds and somehow produce more “meaningful interactions” for users. That’s the company’s term. What does Facebook consider a meaningful interaction?

I had the opportunity earlier this month to listen in on a Facebook webinar in which the company explained its intended changes to journalists, and Facebook is heading in the direction of less public comment, more content that drives meaningful interaction. That means no “engagement baiting,” or posts designed to prompt comments. The algorithm will be making predictions about how likely you are to interact with a post, based on your past history. Part of this is a ranking that is assigned based on the post’s relevance to your interests.

I wonder if this means that instead of Facebook encouraging us to experience the real world and listen to all opinions – even those that don’t conform to our own – we will be facing a virtual mirror and see our own ideas reflected back at us.

That idea frightens me more than listening to what the other side thinks.

Bob Charest has been in the news business since 1977. He has worked at newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire as a reporter and editor. A graduate of Boston University, he has consulted with InDepthNH.org on editing and grant proposals since before its founding in 2015. He writes on topics related to advances in technology and how they have affected our privacy in America.


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