Maybe Facebook can’t be fixed.
Did anyone ever think of that? As a whistleblower releases damning information, as Congress holds another hearing into the harm the company does, the implicit assumption is that the social-media giant can be reformed, that with the right combination of algorithmic tweaks and legislative remedies, it can cease being a malevolent force. Even whistleblower Frances Haugen says that her aim in giving a trove of embarrassing internal documents to the Wall Street Journal was not to harm Facebook, but to fix it.
But can that really be done? There is reason to doubt.
In a 1999 interview with the Miami Herald, Steve Lubar, a curator of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, made a trenchant observation. Namely, that we are wired to believe what has never been true, i.e., that talking to one another brings us together.
“There’s this sense,” he said, “that new and better communications technology will bring about world peace. How can we disagree with each other if we all can talk to each other?” That belief, he said, has accompanied every leap in communications tech from radio, to television to the internet. “It goes back to before the Civil War,” said Mr. Lubar. “[Some people wondered,] ‘How can there be a Civil War if the North and the South have telegraph lines?’”
The ability to communicate broadly, we believe, unites us across barriers, cements our bonds as a human family. Small wonder that’s how many of us once saw Facebook — and indeed, how it markets itself. Smaller wonder that it failed. The expectation was not realistic and never has been.
Which is not to absolve Facebook of its sins. The Journal report depicts a company that harmed people, that knew from its own research that it harmed people and that did precious little to stop harming people. This, while cosplaying as a responsible corporate citizen that only wants to help you share your cat pictures.
Too bad the facts, as reported by the Journal, say otherwise. They say that Instagram, owned by Facebook, exacerbates eating disorders, depression and isolation in teenage girls, and the company knew this, but played it down. They say that drug cartels, human traffickers and ethnic cleansers use Facebook to conduct their dirty business and that the company knows this, but does little to stop it. They say Facebook is a superspreader of misinformation that helped enable the Jan. 6 insurrection and that the company resisted making changes to more effectively address the issue for fear of hurting the bottom line.
This is a trillion-dollar behemoth whose customer base is roughly 40% of the human race and it has consistently shirked the responsibility that comes with its power, refused to let what was right stand between it and the next dollar. So yes, one hopes lawmakers will impose consequences.
But one is also realistic about how much good that can do. Which is to say, a limited amount.
For as long as we are predisposed to consider mass connectivity the key to a better world, there is ultimately no law that can provide fail-safe protection against the unsavory aspects of this medium. Like tobacco, Facebook is a dangerous product one uses at one’s own risk. It’s worth noting, however, that tobacco use in this country declined not just because it was regulated, but also because people became educated to its perils.
Maybe you can’t fix Facebook. But signing off is a breeze.
Leonard Pitts Jr. (email@example.com) is a columnist for the Miami Herald.