Facebook and Our Shadows: 21st Century Virtual Schadenfreude Darkness

Congress is showing their true identity again–control. In an effort to clamp down on free speech and drag the First Amendment into the woods to be tortured by self-righteous, sanctimonious virtue signalers, our august body of rarefied wisdom has inserted its swollen, bulbous proboscis into social media and identified the true culprit: Facebook (FB). Congress was prompted to act on the social media giant after a trove of leaked documents indicated that Facebook was a glutenous, greedy behemoth unconcerned about the wider implications of its policies. 

Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, states on her personal website that she “became increasingly alarmed by the choices the company makes prioritizing their own profits over public safety and putting people’s lives at risk. As a last resort and at great personal risk, Frances made the courageous decision to blow the whistle on Facebook.” 

To accomplish this document dump, Haugen “secretly copied tens of thousands of pages of Facebook internal research” which “She says evidence shows that the company is lying to the public about making significant progress against hate, violence and misinformation, as reported by CBS News 60 Minutes.

Haugens cited an internal FB document that stated “we estimate that we may action as little as 3-5% of hate and about 6-tenths of 1% of V & I [violence and incitement] on Facebook despite being the best in the world at it,” as the smoking gun that strips bare the baser motives of the company. 

She also accused the company of prioritizing content to stir up divisiveness and conflict, saying, “One of the consequences of how Facebook is picking out that content today is it is – optimizing for content that gets engagement, or reaction. But its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing, it’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions. Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money.”

Frances Haugen gave compelling testimony to a congressional committee about the inner workings of Facebook. Source: bbntimes.com

In response, U.S. Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Wahington and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, both Democrats, asked “Facebook to remove any post, group or page that promotes racial violence, voter suppression or election-related misinformation,” and “also urged Facebook to hire more experts on racial hate groups and to improve enforcement of an existing ban on posts encouraging people to take weapons to polls or election offices,” according to AP News

Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications denied the accusations, arguing, “We’ve invested heavily in people and technology to keep our platform safe, and have made fighting misinformation and providing authoritative information a priority,” adding, “If any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments, and society would have solved them a long time ago. We have a strong track record of using our research — as well as external research and close collaboration with experts and organizations — to inform changes to our apps.”

To be sure, Facebook has a responsibility to keep their content within the boundaries of law, and it may err in this respect from time to time. But some of the vitriol is hyperbolic, to say the least. An article in the Atlantic levied criticism against FB CEO Mark Zuckerberg because even though he wanted to be the lead advocate for COVID-19 vaccinations, a concerted effort of anti-vaxxers supposedly thwarted his efforts, leading the magazine to proclaim, “Even when he set a goal, the chief executive couldn’t steer the platform as he wanted.”

Do you mean a well-connected, ultra-wealthy man that is a significant shareholder of a  major newspaper didn’t get his way? For shame! Say it isn’t so!

The Atlantic doubled down on their outrage, proclaiming “Facebook is . . . effectively, a hostile foreign power,”  and  “a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse” that is “poisoning the world.” FB has also been accused of not keeping its bastard child, Instgram, appropriately restrained, resulting in marked damage to teenagers, especially young women. The Wall Street Journal reported, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

There is a context that is missing here. First, as I reported earlier, this study these findings came from was commissioned by FB themselves. Moreover, the study revealed that many teenagers actually felt more connected thanks to Instagram, no small feat in an age of COVID-19 induced isolation. 

Additionally, an in-depth article by the BBC concluded what most of us know intuitively, which is that the effect of social media, including FB, is a mixed, complicated bag:

“It’s clear that in many areas, not enough is known yet to draw many strong conclusions. However, the evidence does point one way: social media affects people differently, depending on pre-existing conditions and personality traits. As with food, gambling and many other temptations of the modern age, excessive use for some individuals is probably inadvisable. But at the same time, it would be wrong to say social media is a universally bad thing, because clearly it brings myriad benefits to our lives.”

To be sure, FB has its share of issues. A recent article by the Optimization Group, a research and analytic consultancy agency, points out the obvious: “The long-term health of Facebook hinges on the satisfaction of their user base. To stay viable, Facebook must keep the trust of their users. To stay profitable, Facebook must have users (for advertising revenue). Any action that Facebook does to damage the trust of their users is counterproductive. The lifeline of Facebook is the trust of its users.”

But there’s an even bigger point that no one is talking about. To begin with, people need to take responsibility for what they let in and out of their lives, including information from social media sources. If you are relying on sources such as Facebook for all of your knowledge on political and social issues, you need to be red-pilled, or blue-pilled, depending.

Social media is a vast collection of political and social echo chambers, information bubbles that play on our pettiest fears and suspicions and use algorithms to amplify and sustain confirmation bias, thus exacerbating divisiveness. The key, then, is education about these issues (especially where young people are concerned), not more regulation. 

Because if you think FB is problematic now, just wait till a group of politicians dripping with self-sanctimonious moral bluster gets ahold of these entities and bends them to their will. Of course, the government always has our best interest at heart, don’t they? They would never dream of using their newfound power over our lives for darker purposes, would they? Nahhh, that’s just madness!

Furthermore, heavy-handed regulation to control the postings, more precisely the language, is a fool’s game. That’s because, in response, users will just get savvier and resort to hiding their intentions through coded language.

As Scientific American frames the issue, “Whenever online authorities (whether social media platforms or governments) attempt to restrict speech on the Internet, people will find creative ways to subvert the rules. These strategies can be used to spread abuse—or to preserve freedom of expression.”  A perfect example was the use of the term schadenfreude on Twitter as a veiled way of displaying pleasure when it was announced Trump had contracted COVID-19. 

And there are layers of this dissemblance, giving rise to an entire system of doublespeak. According to the BBC, this phenomenon is called “‘social steganography’, a phrase coined by academic Danah Boyd, which refers to the use of shared social conventions as a kind of code: to hide meanings in plain sight, through the use of references that only particular people can understand.”

While part of this dynamic is of course to disguise hate speech, social stenography is also a function of a growing sense of paranoia that people have about being continually surveilled by social media or the government. As the BBC explains, “Given enough data, evidence can be selected to support almost any suspicion, and almost anyone can be tainted by association or coincidence.” 

The reaction by our government could be to regularly harangue FB (and other social media outlets by extension) to continually be vigilant by updating their algorithms that reflect a growing lexicon of unwarranted and odious posts. But users would simply evolve their social steganography to stay one step or more ahead.

This is precisely what happens in China, when the government bans phrases to crush dissent, leading voices of opposition to invent new terminology to avoid identification and punishment. Is China the country we wish to emulate in the name of fairness, equity, or civility? 

Share America, a website managed by The Bureau of Global Public Affairs within the U.S. Department of State, paint an ugly picture about the nature of internet censorship in China, stating, “The Chinese government continues to be the worst abuser of internet freedom.”

And Freedom House, an organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties across the globe, had this to say in a recent report: “Authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, and competition over the past year. With a few positive exceptions, the push to regulate the tech industry, which stems in some cases from genuine problems like online harassment and manipulative market practices, is being exploited to subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data.”

At the end of the day, we as adults need to accept personal responsibility for our behaviors, be they online, or on the street. Because the ugly reality is that the viciousness and hate we see on social media is nothing more than a mirror being held up to our collective souls to expose the monsters within, and there is no regulating that dynamic out of existence. It is a sad commentary on the human condition, and the anonymity of social media only magnifies these baser urges, our schadenfreude.

As the website Outlier Arise spells out: ”It is more of an observation into the human mind when there isn’t a dress code. To be honest, small fragments of schadenfreude are present in everyone’s brain. But when you throw in a fake avatar on Twitter, one potentially creates an alter-ego that gives a person the confidence to let schadenfreude run wild, when in real life, the vast majority of us would be more cautious.”

This doesn’t mean that the testimony of Frances is irrelevant, invalid, or unimportant. We should learn something from it. But it alos means we have to broaden the context in order to grasp its deeper meaning.

The heart of the matter is that humankind has not learned to channel our shadow, the darker aspects of our personalities that we often project on others as means of coping with our own insecurities about who we are as well as our hidden angst about our ultimate demise. The imminent Swiss psychologist who created the modern concept of the shadow, Carl Jung, had the following insight into how this force wreaks havoc on the world:

“A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano, and there is, so far as we know, no way of protecting ourselves from a possible outburst that will destroy everybody within reach.” 

But it’s not all bad news, for the shadow also offers hope if we know how to effectively deal with its excesses and proclivity for chaos and destruction. In The Philosophical Tree, Jung writes, “Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Almost 70 years later, Jung’s words ring true, even for Facebook.