Facebook celebrates its 15th birthday on 4 February. It's had a meteoric rise in that time; however, its sense of social, ethical and moral responsibility has not kept pace. Unfortunately for all of us, the mega-company is living up to the worst stereotypes of a troubled teenager.
It’s been growing extremely fast – painfully, in many ways, and still has a way to go, having recently exceeded two billion users. It’s self-serving – even its charitable and collaborative initiatives to “get more people connected to the internet” are designed to directly add to its user base.
Like the cool but mean high school kid, it uses its popularity and position of power to collect information (gossip) about its users, then trades it for its own profit-making purposes. It keeps its bedroom door closed to outsiders, because behind the door are messes it doesn’t want you to see.
And it really, really doesn’t like being told off.
But are these real problems?
Most companies act selfishly. Growth is normally celebrated. A mission statement to connect people sounds noble, but it’s when we zoom in on specific problems that the teenager’s troubles really start to become obvious.
Just like high school students passing notes in the classroom, Facebook is one of the world’s biggest middle-men; it doesn’t write the notes, and it’s not the intended recipient, but it hands out paper and pens and encourages everyone to get scribbling – and profits if they do. Most of the notes are harmless. Some are embarrassing, unethical or controversial. Others are deadly.
Take the case of Myanmar, a conflicted country where Facebook has no offices, staff or data centres, but boasts 20 million users. For years, repeated warnings were sounded that hate speech on Facebook directed toward the Rohingya could be having real-world violent consequences. Despite the warnings, Facebook failed to adequately moderate or eliminate hate speech toward the Rohingya, to the point where a UN investigator into claims of suspected genocide said: “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast.”
It’s no wonder that, despite 94 per cent of Australians accessing Facebook in 2017, almost two-thirds do not trust the platform to keep our data safe.
In 2018, an independent report commissioned by Facebook itself found that “Facebook has become a useful platform for those seeking to incite violence and cause offline harm”.
Other scandals point to a similar lack of forward-thinking accountability within the company. Facebook was slow to react to revelations that Cambridge Analytica had harvested user data and used it to manipulate elections. It internally justified – and perpetuated – “friendly fraud”, in which children as young as five unknowingly racked up huge credit card bills playing online games, plunging families into financial stress.
Beyond these individual examples, louder alarm bells are sounding. At the recent Davos World Economic Forum, George Soros, an economist and major philanthropist, linked the dominance of platform companies to rising global inequality; the strengthening control of authoritarian states on those who live within them; and the inexorable, AI-enhanced monopolisation and sale of people’s attention across the world, creating a threat to our very “freedom of mind”.
Anand Giridharadas echoes this in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, stating that it's not enough to “allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves”.
It’s no wonder that, despite 94 per cent of Australians accessing Facebook in 2017, almost two-thirds do not trust the platform to keep our data safe. We all have an interest in seeing that these troubled teenage years avoid an even darker journey into adulthood. In a world of population growth, changing climate, fake news, the turmoil and opportunity of a fourth industrial revolution, and mass migration, our hands are full enough!
Fortunately, we can see examples of teenaged leaders in the real world showing vision, providing direction and helping others commit to positive action to secure a better future.
Malala Yousafzai, from Pakistan, rose to international fame after she survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, and won a Nobel Peace Prize at 17 campaigning for the right to education. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old student climate activist whose school strikes have triggered a global ripple effect, is practising greater leadership on a civilisational challenge – climate change – than many of the world’s governments or businesses.
Emma González became the face of gun control activism as she, and her peers, successfully pushed for reform in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, in the US. Here in Australia, organisations such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Youth are using the UN’s globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals to strive for positive change across a range of environmental, social and economic issues.
Facebook could be doing the same.
The mission statement of Facebook, to connect people and “bring the world closer together”, is worthy, and much good can come from the interactions and openness it enables. But it’s not without serious dangers and flaws. The way Facebook has gone about its growth, reactively mismanaged emerging problems, and shirked the accountability that comes with immense power and reach, is a problem for us all.
Facebook is the biggest, strongest and most-networked "teen" in the world. The company’s senior figures would do well to show the kind of personal integrity, proactive stance and genuine engagement with complex issues that's being modelled by Malala, Greta, Emma and many other leaders of their generation. In doing so, Facebook could start to earn back our trust.