There is a social media phenomenon known as “virtue signaling.” It is often aligned with trending opinions, such as “climate change,” or helping the needy, or simply any social issue Sean Penn likes to be associated with.
And with that in mind, I watched the entire congressional hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the hot seat. The proceeding was filled with high-level “virtue signaling” from all sides, but mostly from the U.S. Congress.
It was a long set of hearings, occasionally painful to watch. I’m not a masochist. But I needed to hear what the Congress wanted to ask and what Zuckerberg had to say about the recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. Like Whitewater, Blackwater and Watergate, Cambridge Analytica is a name that will go down in infamy. Special interests, power players and of course money are all at stake in this public discourse involving Facebook’s $40-billion revenue and its influence in a presidential election.
Watching the hearings convinced me that the U.S. definitely needs to impose term limits on elective seats. It was painful to watch Sen. Chuck Grassley, who seemed having difficulty reading his prepared statements and struggling to understand the nuances of what he was talking about. Other senators didn’t seem like they were even listening to the actual testimony. They probably hadn’t read the previously submitted documents. They kept repeating their questions, revealing their utter unfamiliarity with the Facebook business model or basic privacy policies.
The lawmakers seemed to contrive a pro-people, anti-big corporation posture — a perfect example of “virtue signaling.” While Zuckerberg came off as quite a bit better prepared, his answers were still vague and generally just repeating promises to protect users’ privacy better. For questions he could not readily answer, he promised to have his team get back with the details.
This is what I have figured out: on Facebook, you are not the customer; you and your personal information are the product. Facebook’s real customers are the advertisers. Ask how much Facebook charges its users and how much it gets from its advertisers and third-party developers. Now, since having to access to you and your information is essential to Facebook’s revenue stream, they do have an interest in keeping you happy and engaged online all the time.
Imagine Mark Zuckerberg as a giant free-range chicken farmer who collects and sells your eggs. He wants you to be healthy and grazing in his pasture, but he can’t fence you in. Farmer Mark wants you to feel like he gives you the best security, the best feed, and the best relationships with all other hens and roosters out there sharing his vast open range. And he promises to protect those eggs! Those beautiful eggs that you keep giving for free and he sells to the advertisers — such as your pictures, posts you like, places you go to, websites you visi, and even your private conversations on Messenger. It’s all for a “better experience” for the users, according to farmer Mark.
This is the ultimate form of virtue signaling —that it’s all about you. Obviously, he didn’t like to mention all the streamed hatred, the damaged relationships, the live-streamed suicides, murder and bullying.
He said Facebook uses advanced artificial intelligence to censor “negative stuff” on the social media site. That’s worrisome though. Where does the line get drawn? How does the Facebook algorithm make that decision? Sure, there is an opaque internal appeal process. In the end, you’re still subject to the internal policies of whatever standard Facebook decides to enforce. There is no external Ombudsman. Take it or leave it. Tough choice.
But the point here is not to demonize Facebook or Congress, but to demonstrate that our technology has far outpaced our ability to sort through these issues in a responsible and fair manner. We need to further examine the impact of social media on our social, legal and economic interests.
Even our national security interests are affected by Facebook, as we have seen with the leak of personal information to Cambridge Analytica, which used it during the 2016 presidential campaign.
We need to start asking tougher questions than: how does Facebook make money? Or, which came first the chicken or the egg? We need to ask how did my my friends list end up with in a foreign data analysis firm that influences elections?
Joseph Meyers is a resident of Tamuning and a self-confessed news junkie.