By Mary Morrissy
I'm living in an abusive relationship, where I’m treated badly and it’s difficult to leave. It’s not a personal relationship but an institutional one. No, not my bank, although there are familiar echoes. I’m on Facebook.
Is there a support group for people like us? If not, there should be.
Lately, I’ve been wondering — should I give up Facebook? The simple and principled answer to that question has to be yes.
It’s a time-wasting, addictive enterprise that sucks you in, steals your data and flogs it to the highest bidder. It controls what you see and manipulates your options as a consumer.
True, it’s got over 2bn followers, and even if your personal following is only a tiny portion of that, it’s a platform that makes you feel warm and wanted, and most of all, liked.
Its stated goal is to keep people connected, but on recent evidence, it treats those people, its users, with contempt.
Last week’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme followed an undercover journalist on a three-week training course in Dublin to become a Facebook content moderator.
It wasn’t made clear whether these trainees had worked elsewhere in Facebook — certainly Channel 4’s undercover reporter hadn’t — but the idea that, after a mere three weeks on an outsourced course, a person could command a nuanced approach to large ethical questions about internet content says it all about the organisation’s take on moral responsibility.
Of course, that isn’t what Facebook was looking for. On the evidence of the documentary, they wanted box-tickers and yes men.
What Dispatches showed is how blunt and self-serving Facebook’s ethical policy is. Even the most disturbing content — a child being beaten by an adult, teens in the act of cutting themselves — was allowed to stay up on the platform, despite repeated complaints by users. The default position seemed to be — mark it as disturbing (MAD) and ignore your users.
Unless, that is, the user had a site with large followings, and thus large advertising potential. Those customers were “shielded”, given more leeway, in other words, on questionable content. As one Facebook mentor was heard to say on the Channel 4 documentary — it’s all about money.
None of this should come as any surprise. Facebook’s big picture ethics, such as they are, have
already been exposed through the Cambridge Analytica scandal. They were shown to have played fast and loose with people’s private information and allowed it to be used illicitly to influence the outcome of the US presidential election.
On the heels of that, the glacial-looking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to a US congressional hearing and apologised, promising to do better in the future. But Zuckerberg’s bottom line has always been control.
He was a fresh-faced Harvard student of 19 when he set up the facebook, as it was called then, for college students to stay in touch. (It got its name from the thin, hardcover volumes which were handed out to first years at Harvard, containing information on campus services and providing photographs of fellow students.)
As early as 2006, he had developed an attitude to his clients that is hard to dispel. In an instant message exchange with a friend leaked to the Silicon Alley Insider, Zuckerberg explained that he had access to any information he wanted on any Harvard student.
I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, he boasted. When the friend enquired how he’d managed it he wrote “People just submitted it, I don’t know why. They ‘trust’ me, dumb fucks.” And that’s us he’s talking about.
Maybe he’s changed from his 19-year-old self. Maybe not.
What has changed, though, is the scope and range of the organisation he’s created. Facebook has become the world’s dominant media organisation, but it refuses to call itself a media company because that would mean adopting the responsibilities of a traditional publisher.
It presents as having a social mission like a non-governmental, not-for-profit outfit, but it’s an enormous global business robustly pursuing growth. (On Monday it announced 6,000 new jobs at its London headquarters.)
So where does that leave the individual user? Should we teach Zuckerberg a lesson by opting not to play the patsy anymore? Would it have any effect?
Like the banks of yore, is Facebook too big to fail? That said, remember Bebo in the early 2000s? For a short while it outdid both Facebook and Google in the UK and Ireland. Then it failed.
The trouble with chopping the Facebook umbilical cord is that breaking up is hard to do. The consumer has three choices — deactivation of your account, which allows your return with all your data intact (and makes that data available to Facebook even if you don’t return).
There’s deletion which permanently removes your data from Facebook but that requires a long and tortuous decoupling process. There is a third option, of course, which is to just do nothing you abandon your account and stop signing on to Facebook.
Either way, the damage is already done. Your information has already been harvested, as well as all your friends’ information, even those who didn’t join Facebook themselves.
Facebook won’t release figures as to how many users have terminated their accounts in the light of recent scandals so it’s hard to work out if the numbers of refuseniks are reaching critical mass.
I’m a reluctant Facebook user, a lurker rather than a participator. But I do find it really useful for promotion of myself and others. It’s a way of being in the world digitally.
Whether it’s worth being allied to an organisation that washes its hands on hate speech, Holocaust deniers and child beaters is another question.
I’ve already drawn the line on Twitter, so if I were to bow out of Facebook I’d really be declaring myself a Luddite, someone turning my face away from the modern world of communications.
On the other hand, Facebook is fast becoming the social network for the middle-aged, so I’m probably already considered a tech-Luddite.
There are things I wouldn’t miss on Facebook. The cat videos, the endless Trump rants, the personality tests, the baby photos.
But the choice I’m left with is this — for social and professional reasons, can I afford to leave Facebook, or for moral reasons, can I afford not to?
Either way, the damage is already done. Your information has already been harvested.