British statesman Lord Acton proclaimed back in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nearly 150 years later, this adage may apply to Facebook and its voracious appetite for profit – just substitute money and profit for power. Facebook’s recent anti-Semitic ad targeting scandal makes me glad that I don’t participate in the platform.
A few years ago I mistakenly clicked on something that made me a user. I regret having done it, as I’m hounded daily with reminders that I have “friends” waiting – most whom I don’t recognize. I’m sure that I’m not missing anything in seeking entertainment opportunities elsewhere. It’s apparent from the recent advertising scandal that some people are taking advantage of Facebook’s lax oversight and its seemingly never-ending pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Facebook is mired in the muck of scandal and controversy, after it was discovered that vile, Nazi-like, anti-Semitic organizations were exploiting the social media site by placing ads to spew their hateful messages. ProPublica recently uncovered their nefarious actions, for which they perhaps paid the paltry sum of $10. Facebook quickly rushed into damage control, sending COO Sandra Sandberg, a Jew, to declare the anti-Semitic ad targeting “a fail on our part,” and vowing to put in place more human oversight. She added that Facebook “never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way – and that is on us.”
The scandal was able to happen due to algorithms, which drive the money-making machine. Algorithms don’t have a conscience. They will just as easily allow someone to socially interact and get news as they will allow them to post harmful content. Why? Because Facebook makes its money by making ads cheap and easy to send, whether they’re commercial or political messages. All are guided by its non-discriminating, non-discerning algorithms.
Users can share “promoted posts” or targeted messages that advertisers pay Facebook to place in their feeds. Thus, it’s easy to contaminate the natural flow of information among friends and family with paid ads. The consequences, as shown by the anti-Semitic posts, can be devastating. While Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, makes pronouncements about how his site connects people and makes the world a better place, we should never forget that it is a pay-for-play site that accepts anything that anyone wants to push on us – as long as they have the money. It is fair game for any entity seeking a big audience.
It may be that Facebook’s chapter of community policing – relying heavily on its users to do the legwork of flagging inappropriate content – is becoming obsolete. Until now, the business model depended on cheap algorithms at the expense of more costly human involvement. When one considers that, at present, there is only one human working at Facebook for every 100,000 users, problems like the present one are inescapable. Based on Sandberg’s remarks, it would appear that’s about to change. In my view, that change can’t come soon enough.
We got a hint of the collateral damage during the 2016 presidential race, which saw Facebook overwhelmed with misinformation and fake news. The participants included foreign troublemakers, politicians, and their ideologically motivated cronies. In a sense, though, we are all to blame because we blindly participate in the frenzy – the appeal – of the platform, of being part of something “big.” Thus we willingly allow ourselves to be used and abused for profit. In reality, we are the product!
As the author of the New York Times piece sums up,
“Facebook’s business model is structurally identical whether advertisers are selling shoes, politics or fake diet pills, and whether they’re going after new moms, dog lovers or neo-Nazis. The algorithms don’t know the difference, and Facebook’s customers are not its users.”
No, we are indeed its product and we have a right not to have our senses abused for a buck.
Opinions are the writer’s own.