Last Monday Facebook turned 15 years of age. What was an innovation by Mark Zuckerberg aimed at a few hundred college students is now a mega-communication tool used by around 2.32 billion people around the world.

These numbers have been monetised effectively, so much so that  Facebook is considered to be the 76th wealthiest ‘country’ in the world with a revenue of around $55 billion in 2018.

Facebook has also taken Malta by storm. Statistics for December 2017 indicate a Facebook penetration of 74 per cent with local audiences. Today Facebook’s uptake is undoubtedly higher.

Every communications innovation since the invention of the phonetic alphabet has always been met with two diametrically opposed reactions. Technophobes would describe it as if it was the worst thing that happened since original sin. Others, on the other hand, would hail it as the great saviour of humanity.

Socrates, for example, lambasted the invention of writing as the destroyer of memory and the world as he knew it to be. Rudolf Arnheim, the guru of film theory, wrote in the mid-1930s that TV would turn people into pathetic hermits squatting in their rooms. The US based Waldorfian educational philosophy still shuns intelligent whiteboards, computers and tablets in its classrooms.

The technophiles do not shy away from shining the other side of the coin. Linguist and poet Caspar von Stieler (1695) lauded newspapers to high heavens; Bertold Brecht (1932) noted radio’s tremendous possibilities for political participation; Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s waxed lyrical about the electronic media, and academic Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1989) praised cable TV as something good for family life.

I cannibalise and adapt Mark Anthony’s famous phrase: so let it be with Facebook seen positively by some and negatively by others.

Zuckerberg, quite naturally, was very upbeat and enthusiastic about his child on its birthday. In a statement celebrating the occasion, Zuckerberg acknowledged criticism exists but wrote that Facebook is being criticised because it is empowering people.

“As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasise the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.”

What Zuckerberg writes is only partly true but he is forgiven. Writing about one’s offspring is always biased. As the Maltese proverb goes: even the owl thinks that its children are beautiful.

If Zuckerberg really wants to empower people he should do his utmost to help people make intelligent, critical and discerning use of Facebook

In a February 2017 interview with Time magazine, Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, reminded readers of the marketing adage that if you get something for free, you should know that you’re the product.

He continued:

“It was never more true than in the case of Facebook and Gmail and YouTube. You get free social-media services, and you get free funny cat videos. In exchange, you give up the most valuable asset you have, which is your personal data.”

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal we are now certain that our personal data is harvested together with that of millions of others and then used to manipulate people. Facebook, the great self-proclaimed network that empowers people, can enslave them by facilitating the undermining of democratic values.

The industry of fake news is mostly possible thanks to Facebook. This industry assassinates characters, spreads lies that help clients win elections, denigrates immigrants, spreads anti-Semitic messages and even kills people. Facebook was blamed by the United Nations for the spreading of hate speech against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. This campaign let to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

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Nearer home, reading comments posted on Facebook by fellow Maltese is a bizarre experience. Hate speech alternates with crass ignorance; insults with inanities; spiritual thoughts with the most vulgar use of language. Some who express sadness online are answered by the Facebook ‘like’ symbol. Even death announcements are sometimes ‘liked’. Facebook has revealed to us a nation which we would have preferred to believe did not exist.

Bioethics professor S. Matthew Liao, writing in a November 24, 2018 edition of the New York Times, asked a question that many who are totally dependent if not addicted to Facebook dare not ask. Given the abuses revealed, is there a moral duty to leave this social network?  He said that for the time being he will stay on Facebook as abuses done so far were not positively willed and intentionally committed by the network. But he served notice that there can be a day when one could be morally obliged to unsubscribe.

Last Monday Zuckerberg said that for the next 15 years Facebook will take people’s empowerment to a higher plane, that is help people remake society. If Zuckerberg really wants to empower people he should do his utmost to help people make intelligent, critical and discerning use of Facebook. It he does not do that, Facebook will continue to be part of the problem not part of the solution.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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