Monday, February 17, 2020

What Facebook Is For

Editorial note:
Remember blogs?  I still have a blog, though it's been a bit neglected.

I originally wrote this post several months ago, but at the time I decided not to post it. The particular events that prompted its composition were still a fresh wound, and I did not wish to offend anyone by appearing to single them out for poor behavior.  I recently re-discovered this post as a draft on my blog, and decided to post it now (after some polishing).  It's still just as relevant, and has lost the edge it would have had at the time of original writing.

 
Dear friends and family,

The purpose of Facebook is to stay in touch with the personal lives of your friends and family.  (Astounding, I know.)  In general, Facebook is not for posting anything that is not your own creation[1] or your personal analysis of someone else's creation that is personally meaningful to you.  It is never helpful to post or amplify divisive content.

If you have something to say about a divisive political issue, say it in your own words or not at all. Don't simply re-post someone else's hot take.

Putting it in your own words will help you to remember that you are responsible for how what you share affects those who will see it.  It also makes it a part of your story; your perspective, and others will feel more comfortable engaging constructively with you about your perspective on the issue, even if they have a different perspective.

Examples of divisive content:
  • It presents an issue without nuance, or lumps unrelated issues together. 
  • It characterizes an entire class of people for ridicule.  
  • It portrays a fringe opposing viewpoint as the mainstream for the opposition.
  • It seems too "good" to be true.
The News
It is acceptable to occasionally share news articles from reputable journalistic sources on Facebook, as long as you take the time to introduce the article to your friends and family, showing why the content is personally important to you.  Posting links to articles without personal context turns Facebook into a slanted, unreliable news source.

Facebook is inherently an unreliable source of news.  At best, it is an echo chamber for views like your own.  Even if you have a diverse set of friends, Facebook's algorithm is always trying to find content that it expects you will engage with positively.  If you want to be informed about the news, you should seek out a diverse collection of publications that demonstrate journalistic integrity.  You might have to pay to subscribe to some of them, but it might also be worth it.

It is occasionally acceptable to use Facebook to keep your friends and family up-to-date on a breaking relevant local issue that is not being widely covered. As an example of this, my sister recently posted a series of news updates about a teacher's strike that she participated in.  The news articles, accompanied by her own personal pictures and stories, allowed us to be informed as to what was happening day-to-day, and what her personal experiences were like, since our own local and national publications did not cover the story in as much detail.

Foreign and domestic influence campaigns
There are of course many "Pages" on Facebook that churn out divisive content.  Many of these pages are fronts for foreign interference in elections.  The 2016 U.S. elections are a famous example of this, but Russia in particular has been behind online astroturf campaigns in dozens of countries over several years, with the strategy of both generating content under false identities (and fake news), and of influencing real people into espousing the polarizing positions and rhetoric generated by their content farms.  Typically they pick an issue and then post content on the extreme end of both sides of the issue's spectrum (differently slanted content on different pages, obviously), sewing distrust and driving people away from one another. In addition to foreign influence, there are also domestic organizations whose goal is to polarize our politics (including some financed directly by domestic political campaigns).  If you don't know who runs the page behind the content, don't re-share it.  Polarizing pages will often intersperse reasonable or funny memes among their extreme content, and you could unwittingly boost their profile by sharing seemingly innocuous memes.


Polarizing content degrades public discourse, and must be opposed, regardless of whose side of what political spectrum it takes.

If you think you're "winning" by ridicule, you are in fact losing.

Before you post something to Facebook, ask yourself:
  • Did I write an introduction explaining how this is personally important to me?  Will this deepen my relationship with my friends and family?
  • Is this true?  Is it from a respected source?  Is it written in a slanted way?  Is there a higher quality article on this topic elsewhere that I could post instead? (Please search to find out.)
  • Does this respect others, especially those who honestly disagree with me on this topic?  Will it generate meaningful discussion, or alienation?
Footnotes:
[1] But what about all the funny memes that I re-post?  Meh.  It's mostly harmless, I guess, but it's it still reduces the signal-to-noise ratio.