(This is an essay I wrote for my Media in Modern Politics class. Do you use Facebook? How often do you see political discourse on the website?)
The concept of Facebook originated as all other concepts do— with an idea.
And according to the primary developer, Mark Zuckerberg, the idea started with a mission to give people the power to build community and bring members of the world closer together. Since the beginning of its conception, Facebook has been a source of controversy for many different reasons. From the obvious dilemma surrounding its humble beginning as a “hot or not” app for undergraduate male students; to the lawsuits against Zuckerberg by three Harvard students who accused him of stealing their idea; to controversies surrounding tax avoidance, censorship policies, and handling of user data; and finally the Antitrust lawsuit that rocked the country last year, there has never been a time when Facebook was not under intense scrutiny by the public. Does any of this change the global impact that Facebook has on its users?
For Jordyn Conard, a junior at Drake University, it does not. Despite the dozens of social media sites that exist for the sole purpose of connecting online users to other users around the world, Facebook is an app that Conard still visits daily, sometimes multiple times a day. As a cheerleader at Drake, Facebook serves as a way for her to keep in contact with friends, family, and organizations that would not be as accessible to her on other apps— like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. In recent years, Facebook has been coined by millennials as a “hub” for older generations to congregate in one place. It can be theorized that a majority of younger users on the Facebook app do so for the purpose of staying in touch with loved ones who have not yet planted their feet into newer, sleeker apps like Snapchat. Conard doesn’t necessarily use her Facebook account to post anything, but she does enjoy looking at the content others put out on their public timelines.
“The app itself comes with its pros and cons. I like seeing my memories pop up from years ago because it reminds me of what I was doing two, or three, or four years ago today. I also enjoy keeping in touch with my grandparents who don’t use any other social media app. I don’t like the ‘stories’ element on the homepage, and rarely ever use that function. Also, the ads seem to take up half of my timeline and what I do see on my timeline is out of order. I also get several irrelevant notifications on my phone every day for a cousin’s friend’s babysitter’s birthday,” Conard said.
The topic of curation is not one that only Conard seems to take issue with. In recent years, Facebook’s use of curation on their News Tab has been a source of public discourse. In August of 2019, Facebook announced that they were going to hire a team of veteran journalists to work around the clock to collect, organize and contextualize information that would be given first-priority in being shown to users on the app. When news of this spread to the public realm, it raised questions surrounding the inevitable biases that could take form when a group of humans were in charge of what the majority of the public saw on their screens everyday, according to an article on Forbes magazine. In the weeks that followed, members from both major sides of the political aisle took offense to this new implementation. Conservatives suggested that the content on Facebook was primarily focused on Democratic and left-leaning politics, and Democrats suggested that this curation didn’t do much to stop the influx of fake Russian-backed accounts from influencing public opinion on the election.
“I think Russians and people of the like have hacked into Facebook before,” Amanda McGowan, another junior at Drake University said. “That’s really scary to think about because if the issue was as wide-spread as people say it is, I think a lot of people could have potentially been influenced by this.”
McGowan doesn’t use Facebook nearly as much as Jordyn Conard does, but she checks in periodically to see what her family is saying about politics. McGowan comes from a conservative line of families, but her immediate family leans left. She says she rarely posts anything other than sporadic comments trying to correct her secondary family members on their political opinions. When asked if she believes her family members have received biased or inaccurate information through Facebook, McGowan responded, “absolutely. I don’t think my aunt would have voted for Trump in 2016 if she hadn’t been flooded with false information.”
I will admit, my own personal Facebook habits are quite similar to Amanda’s. I can’t count how many times I have engaged in public quarrel with someone on Facebook over a political difference in opinion. And thousands of others, I’m sure, can attest to that too. What started off as a way for people to come together and build a community around personal experiences has quickly shifted into an Amphitheatre of political discourse.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of “Anti-social Media” also describes his personal use of Facebook in a more light-hearted tone. He even goes as far as to call himself a “social media power user.”
“…when Facebook became available to those with an @nyu.edu email address in 2004 I signed up immediately. I didn’t think deeply about social networking in those days. But its importance in my life and the lives of two billion others has forced me to master it… I have discovered many fascinating works of thought and culture via Facebook. Through [it] I have befriended people I have not spoken with since we were small children. I have followed friends’ children as they have grown up and left home. I have mourned the passing of more than a few friends and dear relatives…I have learned a lot through Facebook.” (Vaidhyanathan, 43)
For even one of the most prominent and outspoken criticizers of Facebook, Vaidhyanathan seems to use the app just as frequently as those who blindly support it. Despite this, Vaidhyanathan concludes his book with a summons. He suggests that all of the dangers surrounding Facebook must be mitigated soon, or we would enter into a rocky territory that will be impossible to crawl out of. In order to fix this problem, Vaidhyanathan urges readers to study the issues surrounding Facebook, construct proposals that take all stakeholders into account, introduce them carefully with consideration of their potential effects, and argue honestly about the best ways to move forward. But after interviewing multiple Facebook users, and analyzing the habits of both myself and Vaidhyanathan, it doesn’t seem like this idea is one that will make it past its early stages of conception. But the global powerhouse that is Facebook originated as all other concepts do— with an idea. And seeing that something so powerful originated from a rundown dorm room at a college in Massachusetts may give us hope that our ideas can become a powerhouse, too.