A company choosing profits over public good, preying on our weaknesses in the name of making a dollar is not exactly breaking news.
Following a “60 Minutes” exclusive Sunday in which a former Facebook product manager alleged the social media giant’s leadership knew that allowing the spread of hateful rhetoric was bad for society, people reacted as if they had been informed that Santa Claus isn’t real.
Either we have become woefully ignorant as a society or we’ve chosen to turn a blind eye to the obvious. But ultimately Facebook, like any business, reacts to us.
How many businesses would be bankrupted if their executives were brutally honest with us?
What if your bartender detailed to you all the health risks associated with drinking alcohol the next time you order a pint at your favorite pub?
What if gun stores had signs posted showing the numbers of shootings, intentional and accidental, that occur daily?
What if fast-food restaurants listed the numerous diseases and problems caused by obesity on hamburger wrappers?
On a lighter note, what if the golf store manager told you not to buy those $1,000 clubs but instead take up a new hobby?
“Daniel, you’re more likely to break a window than 100,” would be an accurate commentary from a golf professional. But it wouldn’t sell golf clubs.
The comparisons are numerous. We are fine with being lied to, or at least not being presented with direct facts, as long as we’re getting what we want. It doesn’t really matter if it’s good for us, or if a product will help us, as long as we believe it’s what we want or need.
Facebook is no different. As a newspaper man, I can somewhat relate.
Often media outlets are chided for reporting on gruesome crimes. I rarely read such stories because I already have a healthy distrust of humanity, but such reporting is popular.
Why? Is it because media outlets are forcing us to absorb those violent details? Why, for instance, in a time when there’s so much suffering in the world are we so drawn to a story like that of Gabby Petito? While her story certainly is tragic, why is there a global obsession over it when people die every minute?
Human nature is the answer. We’re attracted to the edge. We want to take a peep and observe how far the drop is, and see if there’s any carnage at the bottom. Media publishes stories that attract readers. If people enjoyed consuming news about puppies and kittens, FoxNews and CNN would be arguing over which pet is actually better for our country (Spoiler — it’s cats).
While most all of us enjoy a sappy tale or a positive story here and there, the masses are drawn to violence, divisiveness and pettiness. There would be no reality television if it weren’t this way.
We also aren’t always the best at doing what’s best for us. We know smoking and drinking alcohol is bad for us. We know we should have a salad instead of a burger and fries. We realize that arguing with our cousin over vaccines on Facebook could make the next family gathering awkward (while also not accomplishing anything), but we do it anyway.
And in a country where businesses are given great freedom in marketing and selling their products, we’re prime for manipulation.
This doesn’t mean it’s right. Social media giants must be more responsible for content. If newspapers, television and radio stations can be sued for publishing libelous content, social media companies should be held to the same standards.
But the quickest way to end this pattern is by changing our consumer and social habits.
If customers aren’t buying heart attacks in a bun at the local Greasy Spoon, the restaurant will find a healthier cuisine. If fans stop buying a musician’s songs because they don’t like the language being used, his next album will likely sound a lot different. If readers no longer want to consume news about violence, a newspaper will stop publishing such stories.
And if we don’t want social media companies placing and boosting polarizing posts on our timelines, then it’s time for us to change our ways.
Guns don’t shoot people. Cars don’t run over pedestrians. Facebook doesn’t force us to become insufferable trolls.
The responsibility of being a decent human being lies with us. Accepting accountability for our actions is a good start.