Since the beginning of the school year, I have found myself spending more time — way too much time — on Facebook. At the end of August, I started using the Facebook groups for University of Michigan students, including “UMICH Housing, Rooms, Apartments, Sublets” and “University of Michigan Class of 2023” to try and find a subletter for the fall, while simultaneously logging in to find out what students were publicly posting in anticipation of a completely unfamiliar and unrecognizable school year.
After finally finding someone to sublet my apartment, I had little reason to log back in and see the countless advertisements of increasingly desperate subletters. Still, I found myself returning to Facebook and not only exploring the class pages, but my own feed as well.
What I found was jarring. How can it be that the same platform I used to sell my Ohio State football ticket last year is the same platform responsible for massive misinformation and hate speech scandals that threaten the social and political stability of nations all across the world? With every questionable anti-mask post I scroll past, the false information being consumed by billions of users becomes more worrying.
As I write this, an ethnic genocide in Ethiopia is brewing. The murder of a politically active musician accused of allying with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy has reignited political and religious dissent, “with minorities like Christian Amharas, Christian Oromos, and Gurage people suffering” losses in the hundreds, according to VICE News. This violence is facilitated by the spread of hateful and often false information, made possible by Facebook’s failure to adequately monitor and remove content. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In 2017, Facebook was used by Myanmar’s military to spread hate speech used to worsen the Rohingya Genocide, resulting in at least 6,700 Rohingya deaths and 671,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing their homes.
These events are just two in a depressing string of conflicts in which Facebook has failed to do their part in taking adequate measures to stop the spread of hate speech and subsequent violence in places including Libya, Sri Lanka, India and Germany. Though Facebook’s exact role in these conflicts is inconclusive — with arguments that suggest the connection between the two and others that doubt it — the company has a responsibility to protect itself from becoming a breeding ground for hate and fake news to spread.
Sharing this opinion is the United Nations and the numerous social groups in Ethiopia and Myanmar that penned letters to Facebook asking the site to take substantive action to address the issues. Teddy Workneh, an assistant professor of Global Communication at Kent State University told VICE News, “There is no doubt about the circumstantial evidence of the rise of hate speech and incitement on Facebook in the past two years and how these expressions are accompanied by record numbers of displacements, attacks, and killings on ethnic and religious minorities in regional states.”
Facebook is failing United States democracy as well, with fake and misleading news proliferating through U.S. accounts from foreign nations and even radicalized trolls in our own country. According to the House Intelligence Committee, the Internet Research Agency — the Russian troll farm — was responsible for 80,000 pieces of content designed with the goal of sowing “discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” In 2017, a subsequent Intelligence Committee Assessment found this meddling “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” This content was consumed by over 126 million Americans throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and election. Experts warn similar efforts are underway to undermine our democracy in the critical election that is less than two months away.
The use of Facebook by foreign nations to influence U.S. elections is just the tip of the iceberg. Misinformation and hate speech related to the ongoing pandemic and racial unrest have been circulating on the platform as of late, contributing to confusion on the best public health practices and the recent violence in Kenosha, Wisc.
For starters, a report by Avaaz found global health misinformation on Facebook accumulated an estimated 3.8 billion views over the past year with a mere 16% of this misinformation marked with a warning label to encourage cautious consumption from users. Among the spread of misinformation regarding the pandemic were false claims casting doubt on the accuracy of the U.S. COVID-19 death toll and debunked theories from a viral video. Among these claims were the idea that quarantine does not protect people and has negative effects on an individual’s immunity.
False information attempting to thwart the Black Lives Matter movement is also rampant on the platform, with two recent posts falsely tying a BLM co-founder to a Pro-Communist group in China — those posts received over 40,000 shares. Anti-movement pages encouraging violence against BLM protesters have also accrued thousands of followers on the platform, particularly those based in Kenosha, Wisc. Before two were killed at a protest by an illegally armed teen on Aug. 25, the Kenosha Guard Facebook group called for armed “patriots” to “defend” the city against the protesters. Despite users reporting the page to Facebook prior to the confrontation, the platform failed to remove the page until after the shooting.
This misinformation is troubling, and even more so after taking into account that Facebook averages 1.79 billion daily active users and 2.70 billion monthly active users across the world. And while these issues can feel far away from our reality as young, social-media consumers who are much less likely to share fake news online, it is crucial to examine our relationship with sites like Facebook. I asked a couple of U-M students about their experiences in an attempt to better understand my generation’s use of the platform causing me so much angst.
Engineering sophomore Michael Ficaj is among those who rarely use Facebook. He articulated his reasons for this in an email exchange.
“I have an account and used to use the platform but moved on to other forms of social media in more recent years,” Ficaj wrote. “Now I mainly use my Facebook account for Facebook messenger just to keep in touch with the few of my friends who don’t really use Snapchat or other forms of social media.”
Other students, including LSA freshman Bailey Redler, still use Facebook regularly.
Redler wrote in an email interview, “For the most part, I use it for work … Most recently, I used it to get to know other first-year students at UMich through the (Class of) 2024 Facebook group.”
College students use Facebook groups and pages for many reasons: to connect with classmates, build and maintain student organizations, broadcast campus events and opportunities, find roommates and housing and even buy and sell textbooks, tickets to athletic events and furniture. The size of the University’s student population and Ann Arbor campus makes these resources useful in many ways, and poses an obstacle for students who want to find roommates, sell their clothes or whatever other menial task, but choose not to use Facebook. After using the platform to find roommates and sublet, I understand the unique value of these tools that are all centralized and easily accessible to U-M students on the site.
This poses a moral dilemma similar to the one I’ve asked myself many times: Does my knowledge of Facebook’s involvement in genocides and misinformation mean I am complicit in it, if I still use Facebook for its more lighthearted features? Indeed, this is a question many students and Facebook users are facing today, and I asked Ficaj and Redler if they had found any answers.
“Personally, one of the largest reasons why I decided to sort of leave Facebook behind is because of all the scandals and problems which it has been facing in recent years,” Ficaj wrote. “Between political demographic targeting during and after the 2016 presidential election, huge data leaks, misuse of data, and just a general lack of fact checking and data monitoring, I decided that Facebook was not right for me.”
Similarly, Redler wrote, “I generally take everything I see on Facebook, especially political posts, with a grain of salt. … From my personal experience, its users tend to create posts using biased and/or extremist sources, on both sides, more often than users do on other social media platforms.” But unlike Ficaj, this hasn’t deterred her from using the app; rather, it changes how she uses it.
Facebook has acknowledged the need to do more and has been rolling out plans to stop misinformation, but the past few years have created a somber indication that, for whatever reason, they have not done enough to save lives, trump hate and protect our democracy in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Deleting my account would strip Facebook of whatever microscopic profit and power they gain from my use. However, that line of thought assumes the best way to address the issue is to get rid of Facebook altogether. That means the tremendous amount of social connectivity and tools it provides to billions of people would be entirely lost, and I do not foresee the destruction of Facebook as a likely or appealing solution. Like other facets of our lives that are currently under scrutiny, Facebook is going to require dramatic, systemic change to protect the rights of its users. Until then, I will continue to examine my part in this issue and the moral and practical dilemmas it creates. And perhaps, before I log out on my computer, I could post for the first time since 2017, linking this article and using the mood feature to add that I am indeed “feeling: bewildered.”
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