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 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 percent 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. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

(7) comments

jb76

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jsklinelga

This is one of the better Pitt's columns. It would seem that the desire to change FB crosses party lines. Two points I noticed. Open exchange of Information does not necessarily guarantee harmony. Mr. Pitt's reference to Jam 6 reflects his views yet he completely disregards the multitude of misinformation that prompted the GOP to lead the charge against FB.

But the concept that posting anomalously is a root cause contributor to FB's malevolence driven by profit is noteworthy. Perhaps Mr. Pitts is right. It cannot be fixed. Is it any different then this comment section that dissuades more open exchange of information by allowing a small group to post anonymously, repetitively and quite uncivilly. No the FNP is a prime example of why Mr. Pitt is correct.

Riptide262

Fixing Facebook is an enormous, potentially insurmountable task. However, there are a couple of things that might help.

1) Stop big tech mergers. No one company should have the power of Facebook,

Google, etc.

2) Limit scope. No one company should be the leader in search, education, and email etc.

3) Limit size. Don't let any one company own more than 25% of the market. If a company exceeds 25%, they become 2 companies, each with 12.5%.

4) Require account holders to use their real name. Require companies to verify it. No more posting anonymously. Hold big tech responsible to get this right.

5) Hold social media companies responsible for content within some due diligence guidelines. Require the hosting platform to put a BS label on anything that is BS. There need to be some teeth to spreading disinformation and outright lying. Perhaps allow people to sue the social media company and poster if they are harmed.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of Congress regulating big tech is oddly the same as the likelihood of big tech regulating big tech because big tech = big lobbying so big tech also owns Congress.

NewMarketParent

@Riptide262

These are good suggestions, but it seems like members of Congress are being paid to not have the political willpower to do any of these things.

I think the whole thing just needs to be scrapped as I don't think there is a soft landing. We have to stop the bleeding and shutting it down seems the quickest way.

gabrielshorn2013

Good suggestions riptide. It worked with Standard Oil and AT&T to encourage competitiveness, which should be the goal. Monopolies of that scale are the antithesis of a free society.

Dwasserba

“…we are wired to believe what has never been true, i.e., that talking to one another brings us together.” I was involved in the early mostly adoption-oriented newsgroups when the international online presence was small and people asked, “what’s ‘online’?” when I attended in-person support group meetings/workshops. In-person was fine support. Online I discovered that anonymous adoptees and adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents attacked each other. I am both adoptee and adoptive parent. A lot of these folk weren’t very techie. They’d “flame” me in emails for what they saw as opinion (based on having lived it) in my posts to the forum, then be outraged that I’d copy and paste their email to the forum as examples of “yeah I don’t want more of these for just answering questions.” I was not anon in most forums. I’d let the ensuing parent frenzy for/against my value to them play out. International forums were these, yet for years I was the *only* contributing adoptee/a.parent and the only contributor who connected with a Chinese immigrant parent/college professor who consulted on questions of culture. It filled the time as we trudged toward a completed adoption, China, Thanksgiving 1996. I let the adoptee forums go completely. I befriended one of the prospective adoptive moms whose naivete was often attacked. She was from MD and used her real name. She held views that I weren’t unusual for someone new to adoption. But she was encountering strangers with wounds who considered the forum their outlet for anger. She seemed familiar. Why that would be bad is not something everyone understands even now. She adopted from China, we met at the regional support group in Baltimore, we were friends all her life, we returned to China in 2006, and our daughters remain friends. But I signed off of online forums before we left for China in favor of in-person support and actual parenting. Then Facebook happened. I looked at it briefly then requests came in. I did not understand at the time why this would happen with no effort on my part, but I recognized an adoptive parent name, immediately signed off and never went back on. I published some articles in adoption magazines, I edited and/or contributed to newsletters, designed web pages for non-profit and our daughter’s. I still heard from many a.parents who had my number for many years. I don’t need interaction online that has as much a chance of going sour as not. I already knew that could happen. Dodged that bullet.

NewMarketParent

@Dwasserba

Your adoption story is wonderful.

I grew up with an adopted friend and an adopted cousin. I am thankful for all of those people who will raise children that aren't biologically theirs. It takes a special person to raise a special person.

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