Facebook open to manipulation in an unregulated digital world

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Facebook open to manipulation in an unregulated digital world

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Reuters)

I don’t know how you celebrated when Facebook, the social media network, turned 15 recently. I did not celebrate, since I have managed to stay away from Facebook and its “pokes” and “likes,” despite working in the media for the past three decades. 

Maybe I should not be proud to announce this, since Facebook, which was originally intended to allow Harvard students to connect, has become a massive global business that connects some 2.3 billion users. If anything, I should feel left out.

Whether we like it or not, this digital tool-turned-platform is here to stay after seeping into all aspects of our lives. Yet the questions posed today by users and regulators is just how safe is this monster that has overtaken the world’s communication landscape, and can we trust it to remain a conduit for development rather than a tool for commercial greed and direct action revolutionaries? A quick look at the 15 years since Facebook entered the fray of social action and mobilization reveals the results are not so promising, as we see a parallel world order gathering force while states are lagging behind trying to tame a monster that has a head start on all politicians, regulators and agents of law.

Some have called it a digital era revolution that is in the process of rewriting the rulebook of state systems, the economy and society as a whole for the decades to come.

Speaking of the future, a film that presents a fictitious scenario of doom and gloom pops into my mind while writing on Facebook and its creeping monopoly on communication, commerce and, by default, politics and society. In the movie “Tomorrow Never Dies,” James Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, attempts to foil a plot by a power-mad media mogul bent on using the media to control the world. Of course this is not Facebook or its objectives, and the movie, which was released in 1997, does not come close to illustrating the problems the world is now trying to grapple with as a result of the digital age and its many apps.

At 19 years of age, it was doubtful that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg anticipated that his answer to a socialization deficiency could metamorphose into the giant it is now, or that he could have remotely imagined that someday countries like Russia and Iran would try to use it for sophisticated information operations in order to influence elections around the world.

In 2004, Zuckerberg’s biggest problem may have been that he nearly got kicked out of Harvard, but in 2019 he worries about the threat of government regulation and what this would mean to his Facebook empire, since the social media tool he developed is perceived to be not so good for the world by some. 

Privacy, hacking, hate speech, violence, incitement and fake news are just the tip of the iceberg facing Facebook, let alone monopoly regulations and the challenges likely to be posed in the future. 

Mohamed Chebaro

Today, Facebook is maybe the most recognized brand in the world, and one that has transformed our world for better or worse. The jury is still out and likely to stay out for decades. On an individual level, it controls our data, connects us with friends, tells business about our consumerist preferences, and has made users feel part of a global network. On another level, the law is still grappling with the means to control and tax Facebook. Privacy, hacking, hate speech, violence, incitement and fake news are just the tip of the iceberg facing Facebook, let alone monopoly regulations and the challenges likely to be posed in the future. 

Zuckerberg marked the social network’s 15th anniversary with a post saying that he sees Facebook as largely a “positive” force for society, even as it faces a wave of criticism over issues of manipulation, misinformation, abuse and other social ills. Zuckerberg has acknowledged that Facebook needs to do more to restore trust, and ferret out misinformation and abuse, and has repeated his pledge to spend more “on safety and security.”

Nowhere has Facebook use surged more than in the Arab world during the so-called “Arab spring” of 2011, when activists used Facebook to organize anti-government protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria. 

Last week, Facebook announced that it will be launching third-party fact-checking in Arabic. The network has proved a magnet for all types of online manipulation and fake news being spread online, but its fact-checking service now operates in many languages and is likely to expand further. 

Whether invited or otherwise, Facebook has become part of our socioeconomic landscape. The digital age has not yet peaked and Facebook is just the beginning, with further innovations perhaps likely to facilitate the machine’s control over man through artificial intelligence. Are we the “I am online, therefore I exist” generation or are we the humans who will be at the mercy of intelligent machines?

Going back to Bond and his fight against evil, he decided to end the media mogul’s network for the benefit of global peace. I don’t believe the founder of Facebook carries any evil intent but, through a cocktail of conflict and discord in our borderless world, more sinister players are using his unregulated invention to achieve their goals. This is further eroding the world order we saw established in the post-Second World War era. The years ahead might not be as kind. 

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view