I quit Facebook more than half a decade ago. At some point, constant requests from my abuelita and various cousins to help me out on their virtual farms wore me down. I noticed I wasn’t the only one of my age group who had left, as many of the people I knew fled to Twitter and Tumblr for better memes. If they did have Facebook it was mostly for presenting clever facades of modesty and temperance to their families. Not being on Facebook made me blind to how Facebook was changing. Now I wonder—is too late to get our parents off of it?
Occasionally, my parents would scroll through Facebook in front of me, and over time I noticed the content on their timeline become much less amiable and more aggressive in nature. Family photos, baby updates and Candy Crush invites slowly drowning in rising waters of fake news, blatant propaganda and boomer memes. Cousins formerly posting about their niece’s quinceanera are now ranting about the flat earth or vaccines or Hillary’s emails. Advertisements that used to be for products are now ads for ideas which are of the deliberately misinformed variety. Like the frogs in slowly boiling water, Facebook users were gradually dipped in increasingly toxic water, and the shiny veneer of memes and status updates masked the rising temperatures.
At least, such was my offhand impression of the site. I couldn’t with any certainty say Facebook was becoming more toxic based on other than offhand observation. However, two recent developments regarding Facebook demonstrate how the site is becoming much more poisonous than my observations ever could. The first is centered around the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The crux of the Cambridge Analytica scandal revolves around data: Facebook data was secretly gathered, sold off to various entities, and said data was used by those entities to craft targeted propaganda aimed at influencing elections. The scandal revealed the far reaching power Facebook could hold in information campaigns, owning both the data needed to craft propaganda and the platform from which to disseminate it. More ad scandals arose, such as evidence the Russians were using advertising tactics on Facebook to create division leading up to the 2016 elections. In wake of this, Facebook should need to show meaningful efforts to reform to earn back their reputation as anything other than a harbinger of misinformation and chaos.
In highly publicized congressional hearings, Mark Zuckerberg was given the opportunity to explain how Facebook regulates advertisements. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked if Facebook fact-checked advertisements from political campaigns, Zuckerberg barely had an answer. The point he did manage to get across was he felt Facebook was not in the position to take down political ads with blatant lies in them. In response, Elizabeth Warren ran an ad with incorrect information saying Zuckerberg supports Donald Trump in protest. The ad passed the approval process. Unless Facebook takes the criticism to heart and takes fact-checking seriously, the site will continue to be a beacon for those wishing to spread misinformation to voters.
To make matters worse, Facebook also is taking steps to actively embolden creators of division, going beyond merely passively enabling them. One step Facebook took to combat the spread of misinformation on their site is creating a “high-quality news” tab to feature trusted sources of journalism. However, one of the sites Facebook included in this tab is Breitbart—the publication formerly helmed by Stephen Bannon. Bannon once championed Breitbart as the “platform for the alt-right” and the site is well known for publishing islamophobic and xenophobic articles. Calling Breitbart a “trusted news source” shows Facebook has no desires to actually promote high quality journalism but are invested in promoting a hateful media publication either maliciously or inadvertently. Neither of which is okay.
Unfortunately, parents are about as likely to spontaneously quit Facebook as I am to quit Twitter. When using a specific social media is habitual, it is hard to convince someone to leave. Young people should still make strident efforts to wean their parents and grandparents off the site, slowly removing their mouths from the propaganda feeding tube. The best way to do this is to encourage them to diversify where they spend time online. Teach them Twitter, download them Flipboard or subscribe them to an online newspaper. Hopefully they’ll spend less time overall on Facebook, and be less exposed to a site far too willing to do nothing about the active spreading of harmful misinformation.
Vincent Rendon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @VinceSagebrush.