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Facing the Faceless

Julian S Das Julian S Das
25 Oct 2021
Facing the Faceless by Julian S Das, Indian Currents

One of the longest outages of Facebook and its sister concerns Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp on October 4, 2021, was preceded by a whistleblowing revelation on how Facebook and Instagram are not only eroding the values in our society, but are there to foster hatred and violence through subtle insinuation.

Facebook conglomerate is said to have incurred a huge loss, following the outage, which lasted for over seven hours across the globe, and some estimates put the figure at $7 billion. A great loss indeed for the company which came into existence 17 years ago in 2004, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Savarin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes, roommates and students at Harvard College.

"Our engineering teams have learned that configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between our data centers caused issues that interrupted this communication. This disruption to network traffic had a cascading effect on the way our data centers communicate, bringing our services to a halt," Facebook had explained later.

Studies have shown that Facebook had taken far less time to reach the current registered users of over 2 billion (but official figures put it at 1.7 billion users), which is about 60% of those who use the internet in the world. Dubbed as the largest social network in the planet, the Facebook has been riddled with controversies and problems since its inception.

The full-length feature film The Social Network (2010) deals with the birth of Facebook and the controversies around how Mark had hijacked the whole project from his friends, assuming the place of uncontested supreme leader of the social network; but that is often brushed aside as a mixture of facts and fiction, but those who know the history say that there is more to the faceless Facebook than meets the eye.

Pandora’s Box 

Perhaps no one would have ever thought that the dirty linen of the richest and most popular social network, Facebook would one day be washed in public, before the law-enforcement offices of the United States of America. The whistleblower, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, pulled out skeletons out of the cupboard, and some of the highly secured data and statistics on the impact of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger on general public, especially on children and teenagers.

The 37-year-old conscientious data analyst on misinformation cell at Facebook, in an interview with CBS “60 Minutes” the day before the Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger outage, had stripped Facebook bare, how the company had been preferring profits over public safety, progress over safety of the users.

"Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger are coming back online now. Sorry for the disruption today -- I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about," Zuckerberg had said later that day. But some people tend to believe there could be a link between the disclosure by Haugen and the outage, which cost Facebook dearly.

From the interview with Haugen, one can make out that she was not trying to pour out her allegations against Facebook, because she was disgruntled, but because she felt her duty as a global citizen, it is her duty to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable from the uncontrolled, uncontrollable addictive social network.

Networking Social to Anti-social

A few years after Facebook became a household name across the globe, every country began to witness how the youth became addicted to the social network, in the name of getting ‘connected’ to their friends and forlorn relatives. There were boys and girls, who impersonated themselves, in order to entice the other sex, and then began several horrendous crimes, which had their root on the Facebook.

Our youth would not take seriously any parental advice, much less when it is given in the Church or mandir or masjid. Schools began to monitor the students who became prey to the Facebook, and spent hours in going through the posts of their friends, and got hooked to new friends, who most often hid their real identity, and flirted with innocent girls. Several persons had paid a huge price, thanks to the ‘algorithm’, the brain behind this addictive website.

Though the Facebook had begun as a social network site, it has become one of the most paying sites in the internet, and that had made the co-founder Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest persons in the world. Everything in the Facebook is a commodity, and the more the page makes the visitors addicted to the content, more is the money the network company receives in turn.

Did not Zuckerberg know that the brain-child he gave birth to 17 years ago could one day become the Frankenstein, who would only begin to attack the maker, and the recent outage may come as the beginning of the end of his saga, to be replaced by some other social network, though with less intimidating and harmful to young minds? But who would have thought that what had been driving the Facebook after it took the world by storm was not social relevance or connecting people to live lives worthy of their calling, but to make a booming business, preying on the innocent and innocuous?

Selling violence, hatred

Perhaps the two most socially objectionable issues which find a cozy niche within the Facebook are violence and hatred. It looks the makers have very little control over what is posted in the Facebook, and therefore one could make use of the account to incite people in the name of religion, ethnicity and even personal vendetta. Everything seems possible and there is nothing which is objectionable in the Facebook, though the site does make some statutory warning to the new users. But, is there someone screening the material which goes viral within a few minutes?

Many terrorist and anti-social groups have been forming private groups and sharing incriminating information over the Facebook, and what safer place could they find than this social network? There can be no safer haven than the Facebook, when it comes to hiding one’s true identity and inciting people to follow them, and even like them, when they go beyond the limits of decency and decorum.

Those who crave for violence and hatred, there would be enough and more pages, inviting them to be ‘connected’ with such violence-mongers, albeit wolves masquerading in the sheep’s clothing, and it would be hard to make out that these kinds of people could also live in peaceful co-existence with other innocent people, dotting the Facebook world. But could the Facebook do anything to uproot these ‘bad’ elements, so that they do not bring havoc to human civilization promoting violence and hatred in the name of religion, ethnicity, or ideology? What steps have the leadership at the Facebook done in order to identify and placate such pages, so that innocent people are not dragged into the quagmire of unhealthy and dangerous social interactions?

Setting things right

Haugen, who had earlier worked with Google, had two suggestions to make to the US lawmakers, so that the harm done to the users of Facebook and Instagram in particular, could be minimized. She had recognized that the social network had the potentiality to “connect” people beyond barriers, geographical, religious, cultural or even linguistic, but there was also great danger lurking deep beneath the skin, especially in Facebook’s attempt to increase the profit, by keeping the users as long as possible on various posts.

The first proposal made by Haugen is that a change needs to be brought in the 1996 law, which protected the Facebook and granted them immunity from any liability on the content and had given them the liberty not to disclose their modus operandi in commercializing the network, and the kind of algorithm they used to hook users and making them addicted to the content the website selectively displayed for each of the user, based on their earlier use or experience.

The second proposal was that there should be an overseeing body, which would play the role of watchdog, alerting the company about the possible pitfalls and warning them of legal recourse for allowing dangerous and incriminating content in the pages, and make the entire process of progress a transparent one.

“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Frances Haugen said in her testimony at a hearing of the subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety, and data security.
According to Haugen, Facebook leadership is aware of the pitfalls and the dangers it lands users in, especially the vulnerable groups, including children and teenagers, but they would not do anything to stop them, because that would reduce the profits they make from advertisements. Therefore she has urged the Congress to do something on their part to bring the social network under control, before it is too late.

“Facebook knows its products can be addictive and toxic to children. And it’s not just that they made money, again, it’s that they value their profit more than the pain that they cause the children and their families,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic chairman of the subcommittee, in his opening remarks during the hearing.

Life beyond Facebook?

A good proportion of youngsters might think that they might stop living if Facebook or Instagram were to disappear one day. Now that free Wi-Fi is available in many public places, and mobile data recharge is available for a pittance, hanging onto Facebook or Instagram for hours is no matter at all, and to make things easy, that is not going to pinch the purse either, but that is sure to leave a residue in the personal, psychological, professional and social realms is a fact that they may not know, or do not want to think about.

If only we google Facebook deaths, we would come across the number of unfortunate deaths which were prompted by use of Facebook, the number of marriages broken because people believed all that they read on Facebook pages, the unverified content which makes no difference between fact and fiction. Facebook has also been the cause of eternal separation between best of friends, not to say about the damage it has done to families.

Is it possible to think of a time out of or beyond Facebook? Those who have gone through de-addiction therapies for Facebook tell that life beyond Facebook is quite different, less tension, less headaches, less psychological stress, and more time for family and friends. But is the present generation ready to accept this statement? Perhaps not, until one day when the outage may take Facebook out of our lives forcefully forever, when the present generation would realize that there is life after Facebook, and perhaps a better one!

(The writer is a freelance journalist, writer and video filmmaker, specializing in online courses)

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