On Wednesday, November 3, 2021, experts and members of the wider SNF Dialogues community took part in an open, public dialogue entitled Facebook Down. Setting the backdrop for this 47th Dialogues discussion was the testimony by a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower that the company puts profits over safety, highlighting the urgent need to examine social media’s intended and unintended consequences for our society and democracy.
Engaging with a panel of experts, the audience raised topics including public perception of Facebook following the whistleblower’s revelations, how the introduction of the “Like” button in 2009 represented a turning point in social media dynamics, our role in the so-called attention economy, and what an average user might not—but should—know about social media platforms.
Investigative journalist and author Carole Jane Cadwalladr said, “What should be a public archive—of what happened in this election and what the parties did and who saw what and what the money was spent on—it’s just completely vanished. This period of history has just gone into this black hole. It’s on Facebook’s servers. Given what we now know is that they broke all sort of laws…. Brexit literally was a crime scene, and Facebook has gone and destroyed all the evidence from it. It’s not available to journalists, it’s not available to academics, it’s not available to historians, it’s not going to be available to future generations.”
“The attention economy at its most basic is this restructuring of ways of creating profit that uses us and our free labor as a commodity. We become the commodity. So the more time we spend on these applications, the more they make a profit. And so it’s all about keeping us in the application. I don’t think it’s about self-discipline, because these applications are built in a way to keep us in there, to train our brains to want to continue scrolling…. Our attention has become the commodity that is bought and sold by these companies…. If we all stopped using Facebook, obviously this attention economy wouldn’t work. Is that realistic? No…. Until we have restructuring and regulation and ways to curate these spaces differently, I think media literacy, as an educational aspect, is really important. Kids need to learn early on, when they use these spaces, the way these spaces are interacting with them and forcing their brains to work in a particular way,” said Samira Rajabi, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“We tried to understand the Instagram newsfeed algorithm better, and to do that we created a tool where people could install a browser plug-in and share some data with us. The goal that we had was to understand how different types of posts were prioritized on the timeline on their newsfeed…. We ran three experiments, one about content creators where we could show that pictures of content creators, or what most people call influencers, are much less likely to show in the newsfeed of our volunteers if content creators were wearing clothing. So there is a nudity premium on Instagram, even when you take into account the number of likes and the number of comments a post has. It’s clearly an active decision from the makers of the algorithm to push this kind of content,” said Nicolas Kayser-Bril a data journalist and reporter at Algorithm Watch.
In an interview originally given for the SNF Nostos Conference 2021 on Humanity and Artificial Intelligence that was broadcast during the discussion, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Sinan Aral touched on social media’s impact on democracy, society, and health—today and for tomorrow. “In some parts of the world, Facebook is the internet. It is a very powerful technology. It has blanketed our planet over the last decade very rapidly, and it’s not going away. And so we have to try figure out how we avoid the dark sides of social media and remember how much value social media can create for our society if we adapt it to embody society’s values.”
The Dialogues are curated and moderated by Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou and are held through journalism nonprofit iMEdD (incubator for Media Education and Development).