The perils of social media | Daily News


The perils of social media

Elsewhere in this newspaper, you will be able to read a fact check about several Facebook posts or rather conspiracy theories on 5G and Coronavirus – that 5G towers and signals can cause Covid-19. This is, of course, absolutely, positively rubbish, but Facebook allows such harmful and downright false posts to exist on its platform seen by billions of people.

Facebook evolved in the early 2000s as a way to connect friends (this story is told brilliantly in the David Fincher movie The Social Network) but has rapidly spun out of control. While one can still catch up with a friend’s exploits in the Sahara or a niece’s birthday in Rio on Facebook, that primary function has more or less been overtaken by posts that incite hate and violence and others that promote blatant lies, also labeled “fake news”.

Facebook, led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, opted to remain more or less silent as the triad of fake news, disinformation and hate speech practically took over the site. In fact, Facebook had to apologise on many occasions to countries and entities – it expressed regret for failing to take down hate speech in the immediate aftermath of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka last year.

However, in the wake of many scandals ranging from the Cambridge Analytica data breach to its interfering role in many elections around the world, Facebook is facing a tough time. The final straw was the fallout from the killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minnesota, which again shifted the focus to hate speech on all social media, not just Facebook.

Now the social media giant is facing a backlash from its corporate advertisers, who want the company to police hate speech more thoroughly. Last week, a steady stream of companies came out in support of the ”#StopHateForProfit” campaign, promising to pause or give up advertising on Facebook to encourage the company to ramp up efforts against hate speech and disinformation.

With major advertisers like Verizon joining the campaign Thursday and Unilever, Coca-Cola and Honda saying they would pull advertising on Friday, Facebook is now facing a snowball effect of advertisers abandoning the site. In the week since a group of organizations called on Facebook advertisers to pause their ad spend, more than 100 marketers including Patagonia, REI, Lending Club and The North Face have announced their intention to join.

The organizations said they are asking Facebook to more stringently police hate speech and disinformation by taking a number of actions, including creating a “separate moderation pipeline” for users who say they have been targeted because of their race or religion, or to let advertisers see how frequently their ads appeared near content that was later removed for misinformation or hate.

Last year, Facebook brought in US$ 69.7 billion in ad revenue globally through its millions of advertisers. While it is naïve to think that even 100 advertisers pulling out would make a very big difference to the company’s bottom line, it is about a broader reckoning around the platform’s lack of moderation of hate and disinformation. The simple fact is that advertisers do not want to sponsor violent, bigoted content or lies.

This action seems to be having some effect, as CEO Zuckerberg has announced the company will change its policies to prohibit hate speech in its advertisements. It has also started labelling posts and videos for offensive content, which rival platform Twitter has been doing for some time now. Twitter also does not accept political ads of any kind, whereas Facebook does, even if they contain brazen lies. Civic organisations are thus not happy with Facebook’s limited response. Colour for Change’s President Rashad Robinson said in a tweet the Zuckerberg address was a “failure to wrestle with the harms FB has caused to our democracy & civil rights”.

Some have also suggested that the big tech companies, especially Google, Amazon and Facebook should be “broken up” as they control vast amounts of information and have access to personal information of billions of users. Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, which are also hugely popular. Google owns the poplar video site YouTube. Amazon is into everything from web hosting to facial recognition, apart from its online retail business. Many Governments are said to be seriously looking at this proposal.

But one cannot blame the companies alone for the flood of misinformation on these popular sites and apps. Whenever you see a post on Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter, take a moment to think whether it could be true or whether it could cause harm to someone or a particular group of people. If you think so, do not share or forward it.

The indiscriminate forwarding of posts on social media platforms has resulted in many unnecessary deaths around the world. If you break the chain of misinformation, that is a victory in itself. Social media do have many benefits – but we must use them wisely for the benefit of society, not to its detriment.

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