Facebook’s harm is taking life out of context

That is the theme and title of my latest Bloomberg column.


These examples seem rather cherry-picked. Lots of hand-wringing about the decontextualizing malevolence of the wicked TrumPutinites and Jew-haters, but nothing whatsoever about the impact of Facebook's 7,500-person (!) "Community Operations Team" on the "social context"?

Not only that but this "lack of context" argument can be made for anything online. It's weird because Prof. Cowen is in favor of online education, and that is one area where "context" is probably very important. Actually, the way I see it, social media is only more effective in communicating people's preferences than traditional media. The problem is that people in certain bubbles (ivory tower anyone?) seem to be finding out for the first time what those preferences are.

Beyond that, I don't even think this is a new problem. The printed press was very destabilizing (think about the bible) and that was still a very positive change.

That's it? No enticing quote? Nothing but the bland thesis to convince me to click through? Pass. You're really phoning it in this week.

The article itself is phoned in. Uninspired and unoriginal.

I think the biggest problem with Facebook (and social media in general) is that it is built on social status signalling. It's all about collecting friends and getting "likes". The more "likes" you get, the more popular you appear to be, the higher your social status. That's why it's so addictive. If you aren't checking in and commenting and "liking" and making "Friends", then you're going to lose the status signalling game; other people will have more "Friends" and more "likes".
On top of that, it makes those social status indicators so extremely public - not only will you have fewer friends and likes, but everyone can see that you have fewer friends and likes. Everyone will know who the loser is. And when someone unfriends someone, everyone knows about it. There are no private spats. Only public humiliations.
This is why it's so bad for young girls, for whom social acceptance is so important.

I think you might be behind the times a bit - very few young people take Facebook seriously nowadays. There is little fake news on platforms where young people have migrated (instagram and snapchat) compared to what is present on Facebook. My thought is that this is mainly because there are fewer ads and no groups. But that is beside the point. We are far past the days where people care about the number of friends on Facebook. I think you also miss the point that these newer platforms are much more closed from a clique perspective than Facebook, where stories from friends-of-friends can show up in your feed. Status signalling is less about what you do in a group and more about which group you choose to be a part of. Honestly, it is the boomers who are the most egregious users of Facebook, while the young figured out long ago that the other platforms are much more enjoyable--and certainly less soul-crushing--than Facebook.

Kids aren't the problem, in this context. It is the normal seeming neighbor who pushes out 5 deranged conspiracy theories before breakfast.

You can't even mute her, because you have to "like" the little league stuff.

This might be literally true as to Facebook, but I have on good authority that on Instagram - which remains extremely popular among the youths - follower count and likes are still quite important as social signals.

The social media problem certainly generalizes, even if it manifests a bit differently on each platform.

The questions for the 21st century are (1) can we decide what is true, and (2) is there a smooth way to promote that?

That's what I was going to say - which is why I said "social media in general". I've never used Snapchat or Instagram, but my understanding is that they also involve having followers/friends and likes and that this information is public in your profile.

I agree with this.

I agreed with this comment so much that I instinctively reached for the "like" button with my mouse. I don't even use Facebook, and yet I did this. But MR has no such thing. This really annoys me.

So instead of just pressing the button in your favour, I have to write this rather snarky comment. MR -1.

"Today, the same Russian could place an ad on Facebook, whether for Trump or for a fascist cause. With a minimum of professional effort, it can look just as good as the ads for more legitimate groups and not betray its origins."

Did ads not exist before the Facebook era? And am i really supposed to wring my hand that the ads that now saturate the internet might not all be on the up and up? Cause i got to tell you, i already figured that one out.

Gotta love the oh-so-subtle linkage between Trump, the Russians and fascists though. Way to go, Ty! The Bloomberg crowd will eat that up!

Why be subtle about the truth? Worried for the snowflakes?


Morgan Freeman recently told the world that we've been attacked by Russia that now we are at war. I believe him. He's the president we deserve. And that we've had on film.

One of the nice things about living in a small Southern town is that it's all but impossible for me to select friends based on shared political views. I could choose "friends" with shared political views on social media, but I don't consume social media. Ten to fifteen years ago, a relative, a liberal college professor, came to visit, bringing with her several other liberal college professors. My brother, who had lived in the same small Southern town for many years, was so shocked and offended by the liberal college professors that he created quite a scene, letting them know that he did not approve of them or their views, it having been a very long time, if ever, that he had heard such views. While social media could be used to experience a wide variety of social and political views, it's used for the opposite purpose, resulting in much higher levels of polarization and distrust of others. Social media is more accurately called anti-social media.

Not sure it's lack of context- more like lack of perspective. The number of Nazis in America has probably been pretty stable for the last 50 years, but there are hardly any of them and they went about their business out of sight and were just a punch line for The Blues Brothers (1980) or a weird little curiosity like in The Betrayed (1988).

Now they are in your face. Facebook reminds us that the world is a big place, but lack of perspective means people increasingly interpret the world as a bad place.

Plenty of people would hardly know about young earth creationists, either, etc.

Why? YECs were fighting significant court battles in the years just before Facebook was created.

They are in your face because the media wants them to be. Their near 0 importance has not changed, what has changed is the need for a tidy bad guy to drive clicks.

+ 1

When social context was front and center, as in the older world of mainstream media, fake news was harder to pull off. For all their flaws, major, well-funded newspapers and somewhat boring television networks helped knit Americans together, and most people had a sense of the borders of what kind of reporting lapses might be possible or not.

The role of the Raleigh News & Observer in stirring up the White Supremacy campaign in the 1898 North Carolina election makes me doubt this, but perhaps you're talking about a very specific 1945-1990 time and place? Are a few ads on Facebook really worse than various other conspiracy theory outbreaks among Left, Right, and Center, among elites and the general populace, that have dotted our history? How much of that belief in "what kind of reporting lapses might be possible or not" kept most white Americans believing that police brutality against blacks couldn't possibly be common?

I absolutely agree that people should not only avoid the echo chamber but also avoid getting angry at people with differences of opinions, and Facebook seems to encourage both. It just seems like an easier to long for the days of a consensus when you're solidly within the mainstream, though.

People are also much more tolerant in real life than online, and online content in general provokes more moral outrage than other forms of media or real life, partially because of how Facebook works.

The problem is that Facebook makes cues about social status much more salient, which triggers all these defensive social conformist behaviors like in-group signalling.

If Facebook ads can demonstrably sway elections, shouldn't the value of the company be rising?

Isn't it?

Well, not in the past two months, but quadrupled over the past four years

This was a good piece, but I think it veered a bit to much toward "kids get off my lawn" rather than toward social systems engineering.

It's always worth remembering that Facebook has a market cap over $500 billion, and their only product is the information they have about you, both what you give them & what they glean from your posts, friends, "likes," etc.

It's good to have friends. Facebook is not one of them.

Your history is reverent for the post-WW II era. But if you go back in time, especially in the 19th century, the press was very much driven by extreme politics and was not trustworthy at all. My impression is that it was much worse than anything we are seeing currently.

Probably. At the same time, concentration leads to far bigger audiences for the "best of the worst".

The real center of this piece should be something Tyler talks about in The Complacent Class: What we want and what we think we want are different, and we are realizing that, today, what we really want is of far lower quality than we thought in dimensions that we believe we considered important. The lack of context just lowers the bar of credibility you need to compete in this, so we'll end up with a far higher quality of awful lies than before.

Listen to Ezra Klein's latest podcast, where his guest describes how Russian TV is as full of propaganda as it was back in Soviet era, but now it's much more polished, entertaining, propaganda.

Was Ezra self aware enough to be squirming during that part of the interview?

Interesting that when you search "troll army" one principal story is from 2014.


But now the hottest match is about "web brigades"


I have an impulse to downgrade the Russian aspect, but the sad thing is that the parallel interest has been there for a few years, even before it was called "Trump's Troll Army"


A messy situation.

If the new civil war/Cold War is just different groups and countries paying for internet trolls to post bullshit, I'd say we're doing great.

From duck and cover and nuclear holocaust to idiots fainting over Facebook posts.

That's enough to make even me feel like an optimist.

Viva la future

I consider the current situation much like Gen. Kelly.


Sub optimal.

A ProPublica investigation showed it is possible to search for “Jew haters” and target them with ads for Nazi memorabilia.

Not as far as I can tell. ProPublica showed that it was possible to target "Jew Haters" with an innocuous ad for their own web site. This is possible because the categories for ad targeting are generated automatically and not systematically screened.

But ads are screened, and ProPublica did not demonstrate that Facebook would accept an ad for Nazi memorabilia. I could see that going either way, depending on whether they interpreted it as selling it as historical curios or as promoting Nazism.

Regardless, ProPublica did not show that it was possible to target ads for Nazi memorabilia to antisemites. And the ability to target antisemites for ads does not seem to me to be inherently problematic, if the ads themselves are screened. What if the ADL wanted to target ads to antisemites in hopes of showing some the error of their ways?

ProPublica has a history of publishing sensational pieces that turn out, under closer investigation, to be non-issues. This seems to be yet another such case.

Comments for this post are closed