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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Exiting Facebook

The influence of Facebook is becoming more and more questionable in many parts of the world, with pressure growing for more vigilance in its use

Amina Khairy , Thursday 9 Aug 2018
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“Learn. Engage. Make an impact.” The website politics.fb.com offers users a guide for using Facebook to engage with voters and build online communities. If you are running for office, you can establish a special Facebook page.

You can then use the “issues” section on the page to show people where you stand on key policies and the “endorsements” section to highlight your support.

You can take voters behind the scenes and “go live” to answer questions, or you can take them on the campaign trail and show them what life there is like. Be sure you use your Facebook stories to highlight fun and candid moments. Don’t forget to get authorisation to run ads with a political content.

The mission of this Facebook service is to give people a voice on the issues that matter to them so that they can build the communities they want.

An important part of the mission is equipping elected officials, candidates and government organisations with the tools they need to connect and engage with their communities.

No company, government, organisation, or even UN body can accomplish such jobs alone.Putting candidates in direct contact with voters, enabling them to exchange questions and answers that are perfectly tailored to their needs and making voters feel they are getting an insight into their future presidents, MPs or public servants’ daily lives is what this service is all about.

However, creating an imagined world of people’s empowerment, knowledge and democratisation in a world that is far from being like this in reality is an extremely clever commercial gambit. It has left the world divided into two non-equal segments: before and after Facebook.

In an article entitled “What Facebook Did to American Democracy. And Why It Was So Hard to See It Coming” that appeared in October last year, the authors say that what Facebook has done to the world can be explained as follows. “Facebook’s draw is its ability to give you what you want. Like a page, get more of that page’s posts; like a story, get more stories like that; interact with a person, get more of their updates.”

“The way Facebook determines the ranking of the news feed is the probability that you’ll like, comment on, or share a story. Shares are worth more than comments, which are both worth more than likes, but in all cases, the more likely you are to interact with a post, the higher up it will show in your news feed. What’s crucial to understand is that from the system’s perspective success is correctly predicting what you’ll like, comment on, or share. That’s what matters. People call this ‘engagement’.”

These rules of engagement on Facebook have taken humanity by surprise. When the effects of Facebook as a tool for “democratisation” and empowerment swept the Arab world during the Arab Spring, those who forecast the coming chaos were stigmatised as “anti-democratic” or “pro-dictatorship” enemies of change.

Yet, when the same rules of engagement started to bite on the other side of the world with the rise of extreme-right politics, they lead to victory for US President Donald Trump and Brexit in Britain.

Facebook suddenly became questionable, and the social media’s sociability came under scrutiny. A new book entitled Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects us and Undermines Democracy has now questioned whether Facebook is really a tool for democracy.

The author, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia in the US, argues that one reason why there is nothing like Facebook is the fact that its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, did not have a vision of what Facebook could be like in the future.

The author believes that Zuckerberg simply decided to take an existing dating app one step further and change the world via engagement. He points out that Facebook’s engagement can be measured in terms of numbers and frequencies of likes, shares and posts but not in terms of depth of thought or kindness.

Not World-Changing

In an interview with the US magazine The Atlantic in July, Vaidhyanathan argued that “2011 was one inflection point. In the spring of 2011, there’s this instant myth out there that Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in the overthrow of dictatorships and the establishment of democracies.”

But Facebook itself became insulated from criticism. “It was easy to go to work at Facebook — whether you were Mark Zuckerberg, or Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook CEO], or someone working at the lower level of the Facebook Messenger project — and convince yourself you were improving the world,” he said.

The world has now realised that Facebook is either not really changing the world, or that it is changing the world for the worse. Such realisations have varied from one place to another, and the feedback and degree of reception have also varied from one place to another.

When people in the Middle East realised what Facebook and other social media were doing, they were regarded as dictator-lovers and the enemies of change.

But when people elsewhere came to a similar conclusion, Zuckerberg was requested to give testimony to the US Congress and articles and books were written on how Facebook’s ability to empower and change was a fallacy or was seriously incomplete.

A few days ago, following the death of bishop Epiphanies, the 68-year-old bishop of the Saint Macarius Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun who was found with head injuries, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II announced that he had shut down his Facebook page, saying it was a “waste of time”.

The message was clear: the activities of Coptic bishops on social media had opened the door to confusion.

Monks were ordered to keep away from social media and were given a month “to deactivate and close any social media pages or accounts and voluntarily renounce these behaviours that are not true to monastic life.”

Pope Tawadros wrote in a last post on his Facebook page that using “social media is a waste of time, age and life.”

The time that the world’s 1.47 billion daily users of Facebook spend on average on the site can no longer be taken for granted.

More and more people are asking themselves if their life before Facebook was better, worse, or the same. However, despite such questions and official concerns, Facebook is here to stay.

Switching off the power button is and will never be a solution. It might work for monks and military personnel, but the rest of the world’s population will not be convinced to remain offline.

Even if fake news turns into fake realities leading to catastrophes, the Arab Spring turns out to be Winter in disguise, and democratisation evolves into chaos, putting an end to the Facebook era is not possible via the switch-off button.

Are we doomed to remain hooked on Facebook? Perhaps — but we are not doomed to wear a blindfold when using it.

*The writer is a journalist at the Al-Hayat newspaper.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Exiting Facebook 

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