Facebook and Global Polarization

Owner of the two most popular social media in the world, one of the most used chat platforms in the planet, one of the most downloaded mobile application and the third most visited website in the whole planet – with 2.5 billion simultaneous users and 3.5 billion accumulated – no organization, government, person or company in history has had as much potential and real power to influence humanity as Facebook Inc. [1][2][3].

How guilty is Facebook of the new global social polarization?

 If humanity learned anything during the last century, after suffering two world wars [4] and many bloody civil wars – some of which persist in countries like Syria and Congo – [5], is that one of the consequences derived from systematic, dogmatized of fanaticized ideological polarization is the exacerbated armed conflict [6]. A need of total destruction of the other that results in death, devastation, hunger, desolation and poverty [7].

It is precisely for this reason that, seeking to find a negotiated solution to conflicts that threaten to escalate, the United Nations Organization [8] was born in 1945 as a civilized mechanism for the resolution of human disputes [9]. At the same time, the educational system, the academy, the civil society and some governments began to guide their efforts to moderation, regulation and punishment of hate speech [10], with the objective of stoking the ideological bonfires. To this end, they have promoted democratic and pluralistic mechanisms of social dialogue [11], respect for differences and the promotion of inclusion strategies as the main instrument of social cohesion [12].

Although it is not easy to assimilate in a context in which the news creates the perception that we live in permanent conflict, reality shows that the second half of the 20th century is one of the most pacific and civilized moment that humanity has lived. And even though the existence of isolated and focalized conflicts in various regions of the world is indisputable, statistics as unbiased analysis tool show that ours has been one of the calmest throughout history [13].

In the famous book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind [14], historian Yuval Noah Harari identifies several additional possible factors that may have prompted global peace efforts after World War II. Perhaps the main factor is the nuclearization of nations, since massive destruction weapon’s annihilating power became a good motive to persuade governments of starting a new war, as the result of this equation would lead to total destruction with no winners. On the other hand, there is the development of service-based economies, where resources become intangible, as is the case, for example, in the fifth largest economy in the world: the state of California (if it were and independent country):

“If hypothetically California was invaded by the Chinese, they would not have much to plunder, as they would find

De otra parte, está el desarrollo de las economías basadas en servicios, en donde los recursos se convierten en intangibles, tal y como ocurre, por ejemplo, en la quinta economía más grande del mundo: el estado de California (Si fuera un país independiente):

“If hypothetically California was invaded by the Chinese, they would not have much to plunder, as they would find film, software and the brilliant minds that make it possible, but beyond a few delicious wines and some citrus fruits, they would have no tangible resources to plunder, such as oil or diamonds.” [15] Yuval Noah Harari

 Additionally, Harari [16] states that global peace became a very profitable business in a world where the mass production of goods and services is indispensable for the generation of wealth.

It is also important to mention the wave of global consciousness that began in the sixties and nurtured the dream of a peaceful world, which was called the counterculture – among other names – and significantly marked an entire generation. [17].

Soviet Union fall and the depolarization of world speech

 After World War II, the number of deaths by war and armed conflicts decreased significantly [18]. The exacerbated ideological polarization had a notable decrease, just as there was a significant reduction in the hate speech [19].

Nevertheless, the global political-economic polarization continued in a moderate way during the following decades, in the scenario of the so-called Cold War [20], which maintained on the shores ideologies opposed to the civilizing proposals of communism and capitalism [21] while the world leaders ruled their power games in the poorest countries, far from their cities and fields. This phenomenon, that lasted until the last decade of the nineties when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (URSS) disintegrated [22] and the Chinese economical model flexibilization gave way to a hegemony of capitalism in the global imaginary.

By the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, hate speech and ideological polarization remained at relatively low levels, even during the early years of the development of the World Wide Web. The emergence of a global interactive communication platform did not alter this balance, probably because of the free spirit that characterized the genesis of the Internet and because during the first decades of the web the users were essentially young idealists seeking to build a better world [24].

 A radical change in a historical bypass

 In a very short time, at the beginning the 21st century, what seemed to be a moment of history characterized by tolerance became a new discursive battlefield, but this time it was digital and virtual. Slowly, we could observe the growth of a cyberspace filled of visceral hatred, with new shades and extremist positions in multiple dimensions of modern life. [25]

 In this sudden turn, social media like Facebook and Twitter became the native platforms of that discourse, devolving into what some scholars and journalists have called “decadent discursive sewers” [26]. While radical politicians “of both, the left and the right wing, and of every possible affiliation” [27], some religious leaders “some being extremists and other just being opportunistic” and diverse conspirators started to capitalize that hatred to promote their particular interests. In their march to power and population control, they once again polarized the society and even some experts don’t rule out that we are reaching the frontier of a new social upheaval that would lead to terrible civil wars [28] in an apparent and regrettable historical involution [29].

 How did a cyberspace so radicalized and opposed to the trend built in recent decades become consolidated in such a short time?

 There are many probable factors, especially of social origin, but without a doubt the growing social and economic inequality could be the main cause, leveraged by the increasing connectivity and avalanche of contents. This phenomenon allowed people to see with their own eyes and screens the inequity present in virtually all modern societies. [30] Nevertheless, and without ignoring that the foundation of any social conflict lies in aspects of the human condition, in parallel a technological phenomenon has emerged that seems to catapult the conflict. One only has to think what the Arab Spring [31], the vandalized social uprisings in Chile [32], the Indignant in Spain [33], the Brexit in the United Kingdom [34] [35] [36], the protests in Venezuela [37], the inflammatory speech of Trump [38], the so-called “cacerolazos” in Colombia and Brazil [39],the anti-racial protests in the United States [40], the destruction of statues around the world [41], the protests against the confinement resulting from the COVID-19 [42], the mobilization of ultras groups for the destabilization of the United States [43] and hate speechs promoted by some religious leaders [44], Muslim, Christian [45] or of any faith, have in common.

Although it seems impossible, all these phenomena of such opposite shores and without apparent ideological connection between them – regardless of the validity of their related causes, that of course are not the subject of this article – have a common leading element: the massive use of Facebook and its subsidiary Whatsapp as broadcasting platforms, as can be seen in the respective links that follow each of the aforementioned citations.

Polarization of Facebook algorithms

A recent article published by The Wall Street Journal, entitled “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive” [46], reported that Facebook had evidence that its algorithms polarize and pit users against each other, but its managers ruled out solutions, considering that polarization significantly increases the use of their social media [47].

The report, result of internal auditing, concluded that the algorithms of the social media “exploit the attraction of the human brain to confrontation” [48]. This investigation came up as an answer to the Cambridge Analytics scandal, and its investigators determined that the social media algorithms were achieving the opposite effect to their original objective: to connect the world [49].

“If left unchecked, Facebook will end up providing users with increasingly divisive content in an effort to attract users’ attention and increase time on the platform” [50] concludes one of the auditing reports.

The U.S. media report states that the company decided to discourage research at the direct behest of senior management, and that Facebook executives were aware since 2018, due to other studies, of the polarizing nature of the algorithms used by the platform for content moderation. Also, they were aware that “its configuration promotes intentionally division among people” [51].

Although the revelations made by The Wall Street Journal in its recent article seem novel, it is not the first time that the public opinion knows about it [52]. Less than a year ago, Facebook cofounder, Chris Hughes, wrote an opinion article in The New York Times, in which he affirmed that Mark Zuckerberg’s influence lead to “sacrifice safety and civility for clicks” [53]. Hughes went even further by proposing the dissolution of Facebook, given the “uncontrollable power” of this company [54].

 “Since Zuckerberg controls the majority of Facebook’s voting shares, the board acts “more like an advisory committee, leaving it up to Zuckerberg to decide on the configuration of the algorithms behind Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, intentionally sacrificing security and civility in exchange for clicks”[55] Chris Hughes in The New York Times

 In conclusion, taking into account that Facebook is owner of the two most popular social media in the world and of the chatting platforms most used, which makes it perhaps the most influential structure in history [56] [57] [58], it is essential to play close attention to the allegation published by The Wall Street Journal [59]. Business men, academics, politicians and citizens must check the evidence about Facebook responsibility in the promotion of all the rising global conflicts and the allegations made by the co-founder of this social media himself. And should put pressure on parliaments and regulatory bodies of the UK, Canada, USA, Europe and Australia so they, as leaders and sponsors of digital regularization, introduce new and stricter regulatory frameworks for the social media platforms and their algorithms.

 It is also urgent to revive the debate about the division and corporate disintegration of Facebook Inc. – a legal strategy used before with other monopolies – which, without weakening the economy or discouraging innovation, would allow to decentralize the almost limitless power that Mark Zuckerberg holds or even the co-founder himself, Chris Hughes [61] [62].

By: Gabriel E. Levy B. – www.galevy.com

Photo: Alex Haney at unsplash.com

[1] Statistics on Statista’s WhatsApp

[2] Hootsuite platform statistics

[3] Social media ranking of the Statista platform

[4] Article on the World Wars

[5] Academic article: Civil Wars: Theoretical Considerations from the Social Sciences

[6] Academic Article: Polarization and conflicts in LATAM

[7] Academic article: The economic effects of war

[8] UN Article: The History of the United Nations

[9] UN article: UN objectives

[10] Article on the IACHR’s Hate Speech

[11] Article: Understanding and Fighting the Discourse of Hate

[12] Academic article: Democracy, education for citizenship and inclusion: a multidimensional approach

[13] Smithsonian Institution Figures and Analysis

[14] Book: From animals to gods

[15] Book: From animals to gods

[16] Book: From animals to gods

[17] Encyclopedic article on the counterculture

[18] Smithsonian Institution Figures and Analysis

[19] Article on the IACHR’s Hate Speech

[20] BBC article: What was the Cold War?

[21] Book: Cold War Theories

[22] La Vanguardia article on the fall of the Soviet Union

[23] Academic Paper: China 30 years of economic growth

[24] Academic article: Digital Culture and Creative Practices; Ethnographic Tientos around Free Culture

[25] Academic article: The Discourse of Hate in Social Networks: A State of the Question

[26] Opinion article from the country of Spain on Social Networks such as Cloacas

[27] Interview by El País from Spain: “Social networks promote populism”.

[28] Article by the Observer from Uruguay on a possible civil war in the US

[29] Article from the Basque Country Tribune on a possible civil war in Europe

[30] Book: Social Consequences of Internet Use

[31] Academic article: The Facebook revolution during the Arab spring

[32] Academic article: The use of Facebook in student protests in Chile

[33] Newspaper article on the role of Facebook in Spain during the Indignant Movement

[34] Ted’s video, Carole Cadwallard’s lecture “The role of Facebook in the Brexit”.

[35] Analysis article: What is Facebook hiding about Brexit?

[36] BBC article on Facebook’s fine for its liability in Cambridge Analitycs

[37] Newspaper article by Infobae on the blockade of Facebook and other networks in the context of protests in Venezuela

[38] Newspaper article on Facebook employee protests for allowing Trump postings

[39] BBC article on the cacerolazos in Colombia

[40] France 24 news item on the role of social networks during the US protests

[41] News about how Instagram’s influence destroys statue to gain followers

[42] 20-minute newspaper article on anti-confinement protest events

[43] Journalistic note by gestión.pe about the Boogaloo Bois movement on Facebook

[44] Academic article: Evangelical disputes and plots in social networks

[45] BBC article: Evangelicals and the Coronavirus

[46] The Wall Street Journal’s denunciation of Facebook’s intentional intention to polarize

[47] Business Insider article on the intentional polarization of Facebook

[48] The Wall Street Journal’s denunciation of Facebook’s intentional intention to polarize

[49] Business Insider article on the intentional polarization of Facebook

[50] Article from the Observatory of Latin American Regulation: Observacom

[51] The Wall Street Journal’s denunciation of Facebook’s intentional intention to polarize

[52] Infobae’s press release on the media’s criticism of Facebook

[53] Opinion article by Chris Huges in The New York Times

[54] Press release from the newspaper La República about Hughes’ opinion column

[55] Opinion article by Chris Huges in The New York Times

[56] Statistics on Statista’s WhatsApp

[57] Hootsuite platform statistics

[58] Social media ranking of the Statista platform

[59] The Wall Street Journal’s denunciation of Facebook’s intentional intention to polarize

[60] Newspaper article from Diario.es about Senator Warren’s proposal to divide Facebook

[61] Opinion article by Chris Huges in The New York Times

[62] Opinion article on proposal to dissolve Facebook, by its own co-founder

Disclaimer: The published articles correspond to contextual reviews or analyses on digital transformation in the information society, duly supported by reliable and verified academic and/or journalistic sources.  The publications are NOT opinion articles and therefore the information they contain does not necessarily represent Andinalink’s position, nor that of their authors or the entities with which they are formally linked, regarding the topics, persons, entities or organizations mentioned in the text.