Commentary

One Billion People Used Facebook on Monday. So What?

Facebook passed a major milestone on Monday, when one billion people around the world used the social network, according to founder Mark Zuckerberg, who shared the news in a blog post at the end of the week.

While that number is a clear testament to the huge scale and global sweep enjoyed by Facebook, which had an average of about 1.5 billion active users per month in the second quarter, Zuckerberg believes it represents something even bigger, casting it as another step in humanity’s endless progress.

“Our community stands for giving every person a voice, for promoting understanding and for including everyone in the opportunities of our modern world. A more open and connected world is a better world. It brings stronger relationships with those you love, a stronger economy with more opportunities, and a stronger society that reflects all of our values.”

As always, I have to question some of the assumptions behind this messianic view of social media and the Internet in general. Zuckerberg may be right about connectivity expanding economic opportunities, and if so, that is definitely a huge point in the Internet’s favor. But his other claims are a little hard to swallow.

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For example, does online communication really “promote understanding?” Looking at the state of public discourse in this country recently, I’d say you could make an argument that’s at least as convincing in the opposite direction -- that is, that social media allows people to seek out and retreat into “echo chambers” where their own prejudices are reinforced by like-minded communities.

To cite just one instance among many, Dylann Roof, the degenerate who murdered nine people at a church in Charleston, was active in a white supremacist Web forum and posted his hate-filled manifesto on another site. Meanwhile around the world social media allows individuals to self-radicalize through exposure to Islamist terrorist propaganda, as appears to have been the case with the Boston Marathon bombers and now numerous European young people who leave their homes to join ISIS. 

As for Zuckerberg’s contention that “It brings stronger relationships with those you love,” this may or may not be true depending on the individual user and their personal network. But at this point it’s definitely true that for some people, social media use is linked to psychological issues including low self-esteem, insecurity, and depression, while for others, it simply provides a new forum for narcissistic displays (and let’s not even get into bullying). Of course this isn’t true of everyone, or even most people, who use social media -- but the existence of the phenomenon certainly casts a different light on Zuckerberg’s claims about social media and emotional well being.

Zuckerberg also claims “A more open and connected world is a better world.” But why do we assume the world is “more open” simply because it is more “connected?” People point to examples like the Egyptian “Facebook Revolution,” where ordinary people used social media to outwit repressive regimes -- but the sad truth is that these kinds of events are probably historical one-offs which result when dictators take their eye off the technological ball. Now regimes around the world are fully aware of the potential of the new media, and they won’t be caught unprepared again. Indeed, social media may work equally well as a means for spying on people and distributing propaganda, as anyone who has encountered the hordes of online commenters employed by the Chinese government to parrot the official line on Western media sites can attest.

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