Remind me again: Facebook is the greatest instantiation of satanic evil in the 21st-first century . . . why?
I’ve been on Facebook for over a decade, and here are some typical recent interactions: I learned that the Rev. Robert Thompson is trying to buy New Hampshire’s first Black-owned church, The Pearl, in Portsmouth. Facebook facilitated donations, and I made one. I learned that a friend’s daughter will soon publish a warmly anticipated book and that Sept. 20 was International Buy a Priest a Beer Day.
I probably spend about 30 minutes a day on Facebook. No one has urged me to overthrow the Republic, overdose on ivermectin, or join a hate group.
Yes, I know that I am the product Facebook sells to its advertisers. For a company often characterized as all-seeing and omnipotent — “The Largest Autocracy on Earth,” The Atlantic recently called it — Facebook is not particularly efficient. Why I am seeing ads for KatchyBug fly traps, or for the ungainly-looking Oru kayak, I have no idea. We rowers disdain kayaks, which we call “speed bumps,” and scorn the people inside them.
The Wall Street Journal, a newspaper not known for frivolous investigations, just published a six-part series called “The Facebook Files,” principally based on a trove of leaked memos in which upper-tier Facebook managers wrestle — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — with the bewildering array of problems that beset a public-facing company with 2.85 billion users.
I found the Journal outing quite underwhelming. For instance, the site censors public figures much more rarely than it censors common users, a procedure called “Whitelisting.” Facebook’s response: “Criticism of the program is fair . . . it was designed for a good purpose and the company is working to fix it.”
Another finding: Mark Zuckerberg wanted Facebook to become a powerful advocate for COVID-19 vaccinations, but anti-vaxxer trolls thwarted him. “Even when he set a goal, the chief executive couldn’t steer the platform as he wanted,” the Journal comments. But that’s a good thing, no?
The Atlantic article, published last month, painted Facebook as a bogeyman of intergalactic proportions. (“Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine” was another recent, even-keeled Atlantic sally.) “Facebook is . . . effectively, a hostile foreign power,” according to author Adrienne LaFrance. It is also “a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse” that is “poisoning the world.”
LaFrance accuses Facebook of “colonialism” for planning to launch (yet another) cryptocurrency, which, she says, “financial regulators and banks have feared could throw off the global economy and decimate the dollar.”
Really? “Decimate the dollar”? Ya think? Does Janet Yellen know about this?
There are some very bad people on Facebook, and let’s stipulate that the company could, and probably will, devote more resources to booting them off the site. But it’s worth remembering that in many parts of the world Facebook is akin to a common carrier, a means of communication like the telephone company.
I can well believe that the Myanmar military used Facebook to whip up hatred against their country’s Muslim minority, or that extremists plotting violence at the US Capitol on Jan. 6 used private Facebook groups to promote their plans. But the pro-Trumpists used cellphones and text messaging, too, and no one is suggesting that Verizon and AT&T are “doomsday machines” as a result.
In a 2019 post, Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth wrote, “While Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation.”
Facebook’s critics could benefit from some moderation too.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.