2016: The year Facebook became the bad guy

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Facebook numbs us. 

It’s supposed to: As an app and social network, it offers an unending feed of comforting memories, photos from friends and updates from trusted brands. (“Not enjoying pooping at work?” Let Charmin help.)

But we felt a little sting in 2016, when Facebook, despite its best efforts, became political — an institution with far more power than many of us once recognized. It was the bad guy in an era that felt like a dystopic movie.

It plotted to expand its internet service empire, giving us a glimpse into a future when the world’s largest social network administers internet access to millions (or billions) rather than ceding control to other providers. It overreacted to reports of bias in its “Trending” news feature and terminated its staff of human editors. Important media was censored on the platform. And Facebook allowed disinformation and viral hoaxes to run amok in the News Feed during a pivotal presidential election. 

Let’s return to the beginning of this year to examine what went wrong.

The Internet™, by Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg performs his morning ritual in a short film introducing an artificial intelligence named Jarvis he’s reportedly programmed to control his home.

Facebook suffered a rebuke in February that would reverberate through the rest of the year. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India struck down Facebook’s plans to install its “Free Basics” internet service in the country, which would offer a limited suite of online services to users at no cost. 

You can view Free Basics in one of two ways. Perhaps access to the internet has become a human right — as Mark Zuckerberg has suggested — and Free Basics represents a tech corporation stepping ahead of elected officials to better the lot of the disenfranchised. 

There is no more precise way of understanding Facebook’s ambitions than to “shape [our] internet experience.”

Or, maybe Free Basics is a cynical ploy for Facebook to corporatize and limit the open internet — a stepping stone to wide-ranging powers that would dictate how people access and consume information.

“Given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet,” the telecom authority wrote in opposition to Free Basics, “allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs (telecom service providers) shape the users’ internet experience.”

It’s a savvy statement, as there is no more precise way of understanding Facebook’s ambitions than to “shape [our] internet experience.” Indeed, the social network has always shaped how we experience the internet — information delivered with ruthless efficiency by algorithms, accompanied by a sprinkling of photos, video and other nostalgic ephemera made permanent on its servers.

So, fair or not, Facebook was framed as an empire attempting to control our online experience. (Image-wise, we’d argue it didn’t help that Facebook tested a massive “Aquila” drone in July that’s designed to fly around planet Earth, beaming internet access down to remote areas.)

Facebook's internet-beaming Aquila drone.

Facebook’s internet-beaming Aquila drone.

Facebook’s attempts to mediate an online experience are made explicit in Free Basics — but it’s a theme that cropped up time and time again throughout 2016. 

Censorship and antagonism

Consider the word “control” in Facebook’s disastrous handling of the media this year. The company has tried and failed to walk a tightrope between free and moderated expression, and it fell loudly on its ass, over and over again.

A sampling:

  • Facebook temporarily removed a live broadcast showing the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting in July. Castile had been shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in St. Paul, Minnesota during a traffic stop, and his girlfriend broadcast the following moments via the new “Live” feature. The video had been viewed millions of times and showcased how our smartphones could help keep those in power accountable, so long as the platforms we trust don’t interfere.

    Facebook quickly reinstated the video, blamed a technical glitch for its removal and then patted itself on the back for building “a more open and connected world.” The incident reminded us that while Facebook gives us tools to communicate with, anything we create for its platform is subject to “glitches” and moderation. On other words, we operate on the company’s terms.

  • In August, Facebook purged the journalists on its “Trending” news team. Shortly thereafter, fake stories began appearing in the Trending sidebar. Critics had lashed the company earlier this year following reports that those journalists “suppressed” conservative news in the Trending feature and “injected” stories that weren’t being widely discussed on the social network. Facebook’s response was intended to provide balance by removing any risk of editorializing. Instead, it obfuscated the news by presenting users with useless junk.

  • In September, Facebook removed an iconic photo from the Vietnam War because it violated its terms of service. When users revolted, the social network reinstated the image and updated its policies.

  • In November, a report in the New York Times alleged that Facebook had developed a tool that would help Chinese officials censor information in the News Feed — a cynical move to help the social network gain a foothold in the country. It hasn’t been deployed, but you don’t need us to tell you why that’s bad news.

  • Throughout 2016, Facebook allowed totally “fake news” to spread to millions of people on its News Feed. (You’ve no doubt heard.) Opportunists understood they could profit from fabricating stories that supported Donald Trump while damning Hillary Clinton, and Facebook gave them a platform. Obscene stories about Clinton’s involvement in a totally invented child sex ring spread like wildfire, arguably influencing the election in November. Facebook said it would address the problem by working with third-party fact checkers in a move that we’ve characterized as too little, too late.

Room to grow

All of these problems stem from a core idea: Facebook wants to be a product for everyone. It has over a billion users, but to the social network, that means there are 6 billion more to go.

Free Basics is one element of the plan to capture them. The games it plays with its News Feed — making a mess, shrugging off responsibility and haphazardly responding to criticism — are another. 

There has never been a communication tool quite like Facebook, and the company only intends for it to grow. Its potential as a force of good almost goes without saying — for all it messed up this year, Facebook also deployed artificial intelligence that could describe photos to blind people, for example. 

But if the company’s performance in 2016 teaches us anything, it’s that the social network’s power must be continually examined, because the potential for darkness is no less great.

BONUS: Are Your Parents On Social Media?

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