Thanks to Facebook I celebrate the birth of another child in the family of Dr. Jorge and wife Cristina in San Luis Potosí. I know M. Celestin Engelemba has returned to Mbandaka and helps organize community development efforts of the Disciples of Christ Church in Congo. Through messaging on Facebook, Rev. Bolembo in a remote area of the Congolese equatorial rainforest knows I am praying for those threatened by the latest outbreak of the ebola virus. I am grateful for the assurance through Facebook posts that the remarkable literacy advocate and organizer Ms. Magdalena Gathoni in Kenya remains active.
But there is another face of Facebook in the world today, especially in those countries like Kenya and Congo where access to the internet is limited and where Facebook use does not count against an individual’s data cap. As of the beginning of this year, according to the new book “Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”, there are 2.2 billion users of Facebook in the world today. The new book’s author Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan added in a recent interview on DemocracyNow!, “There are also places in the world where Facebook is the entire media system, or at least the entire internet.”
And more perniciously, Dr. Vaidhyhanathan notes, this rapidly growing use of the software has been used by authoritarian nationalists to gain power in India, the Philippines, the U.K. (through the Brexit campaign) and the United States. “In all of these cases, forces, often from other countries, interfered in the democratic process, distributed propaganda, distributed misinformation, created chaos, often funneled campaign support outside of normal channels, and it’s largely because Facebook is so easy to hijack” the media scholar explained in the interview on DemocracyNow! . He went on to say, “the Trump campaign, the Ted Cruz campaign, and, before that, the Duterte campaign in the Philippines, the Modi campaign in India, they all used Facebook itself to target voters, either to persuade them to vote or dissuade them from voting”.
The media analyst went on to say that the President of India Narendra Modi has more Facebook followers than any other politician in the world. This “master of Facebook” used the software as the primary tool of a “three part strategy”, the “authoritarian playbook”, as he describes it.
“What they do is they use Facebook and WhatsApp to distribute propaganda about themselves, flooding out all other discussion about what’s going on in politics and government. Secondly, they use the same sort of propaganda machines, very accurately targeted, to undermine their opponents and critics publicly. And then, thirdly, they use WhatsApp and Facebook to generate harassment, the sort of harassment that can put any nongovernment
organization, human rights organization, journalist, scholar or political party off its game, because you’re constantly being accused of pedophilia, you’re being accused of rape, or you’re being threatened with rape, threatened with kidnapping, threatened with murder, which makes it impossible to actually perform publicly in a democratic space. This is exactly what Modi mastered in his campaign in 2014, and, in fact, a bit before. And that same playbook was picked up by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and it’s being used all over the world by authoritarian and nationalist leaders, to greater or lesser degrees.”
Facebook’s reach and power in the political realm derives from its capacity to generate strong emotions in its users. Posts poking the hornets’ nest always yield more responses than thoughtful commentary. It is the author’s insights on humanity’s rule by our emotions and the vulnerability of our capacity to think that, in the author’s view, are the real source of Facebook’s power over us and the threat it poses to our social order.
Dr. Vaidhyanathan analyzed the symbiosis of Facebook’s growing use and its encouragement of human emotion over reason in his DemocracyNow! interview, “What it promotes mostly are items that generate strong emotions. What generates strong emotions? Well, content that is cute or lovely, like puppies and baby goats, but also content that is extreme, content that is angry, content that is hateful, content that feeds conspiracy theories. And this hateful, angry conspiracy theory collection doesn’t just spread because people like it. In fact, it, more often than not, spreads because people have problems with it. If I were to post some wacky conspiracy theory on my Facebook page today, nine out of 10 of the comments that would follow it would be friends of mine arguing against me, telling me how stupid I was for posting this. The very act of commenting on that post amplifies its reach, puts it on more people’s news feeds, makes it last longer, sit higher. Right? So the very act of arguing against the crazy amplifies the crazy.”
Should we get off the Facebook habit then? Its brilliant critic says this is not the answer. Only the state with our backing and direction has the capacity and the authority to oversee and shape the Facebook technology to protect its users from being exploited and preserve democratic rule by the people. In its review of the book, The Guardian newspaper reported, “Vaidhyanathan argues that the key places to start are privacy, data protection, antitrust and competition law. Facebook is now too big and should be broken up: there’s no reason why it should be allowed to own Instagram and WhatsApp, for example.” The question then emerges of when the people of the U.S. will elect a President and a Congress with the backbone, the courage and the integrity to safeguard the public and U.S. democracy, and democratic rule elsewhere, against the threat of this new technology.