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20 years of Facebook - hope, risks, data trade

2024-02-05 13:38:00, Tech CNA

20 years of Facebook - hope, risks, data trade

"Facebook" celebrates its 20th anniversary. It is the largest social network in the world. More than three billion people are active on this site at least once a month. That is, more than a third of the world's population. A success story. But for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the celebration is in bad taste. Just days before the anniversary, Zuckerberg faced harsh criticism at a US Senate hearing. "You've got bloody hands," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham yelled at Zuckerberg. "You have a product that kills people."

Essence: Lack of protection for children and young people on major internet platforms. "Your design decisions, your failure to invest properly in security, your continued pursuit of profit over basic security are putting our children and grandchildren at risk," said Democrat Dick Durbin, the US Senate majority leader.

20 years of Facebook - hope, risks, data trade

The dangers of social media are now widely debated. In the United States, they are considered jointly responsible for the youth mental health crisis. Vivek Murthy, director of the public health service, published a separate recommendation on social media in May 2023. He warns that there are "many signs that social media can seriously damage the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people".

This is underlined by the German psychologist and risk researcher Gerd Gigerenzer (Gigerenzer) in a conversation with DW. "Some studies show that insecurity, lack of self-esteem, depression and even suicidal thoughts have increased," Gigerencer points out.

Among these signs in the US can be counted, for example, the increase in the suicide rate among people aged 10 to 25 years. In the last decade, from 2011 to 2021, it has increased by 60 percent.

A better start?

However, Facebook started as a harmless platform. As a social network, where you can quickly find schoolmates, share your holiday photos and keep up with what your circle of friends are doing now. "In the beginning, Facebook hoped to make the world a better place by connecting people," Berlin-based media expert Martin Emmer recalls of Facebook's early days.

Satisfying an ancient human need

For example, with the changes in the Arab world during the Arab Spring of 2011, which were initially marked with great hopes. Because of the network's role in organizing demonstrations and resistance, they have sometimes been called "Facebook revolutions".

20 years of Facebook - hope, risks, data trade

Facebook, especially at the same time as the rapid development of smartphones, ensured the fulfillment of an ancient human need at the highest technical level. "Man is a social being," explains Emmer. "And so those platforms created something that no other media had before."

Between empowerment and powerlessness

Yet providing the connectivity infrastructure between people, no matter how "free" it may seem, comes at a price. Users pay twice: with their personal data and attention. Attention is a rare commodity. Advertisers are happy to pay for it. Especially if messages can be sent to potential customers thanks to accurate personality profiles. This is why platform operators collect as much data as possible from their users, and each "like" provides them with another piece of data. With detailed knowledge of users' interests, likes and dislikes, content is created for them that keeps them on the platform as long as possible.

How this content affects individuals and society has long been ignored by platforms. The increasing polarization of society, the increasingly fierce political debate, the spread of the craziest conspiracy theories - all this is connected to Facebook and similar platforms.

Psychologist Gigerencer compares networks to a coffee shop where you get free coffee. "Everyone goes there, meets their friends and doesn't have to pay anything. But: There are eavesdroppers, there are cameras and videos are made that record everything and then pass the information on to third parties. The cafe is also full of people who interrupt you constantly and offer merchandise tailored specifically to you". Real users, Gigerencer explains, aren't drinking coffee. No, they're the ones interrupting you and paying for your coffee.

20 years of Facebook - hope, risks, data trade

And they may also have political interests. In 2016, for example, accusations began against Russia that it used Facebook to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Two years later, Facebook was embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica scandal: The company, largely without the knowledge of its users, analyzed data from around 50 million Facebook profiles. And during the 2020 US election, the Facebook group "Stop the Steal" played a key role in the legend spread by Donald Trump about the stolen election.

2024 Super Election

20 years of Facebook - hope, risks, data trade

2024 is another election year, even a super-election year. Citizens in countries where more than half of the world's population lives go to the polls for the European Parliament. For example, in India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia, in the USA and for the European Parliament. American computer scientist and social media critic Jaron Lanier is worried: "There will be more and more serious lies using artificial intelligence and other new technologies applied to manipulate people. And I don't think many people will be prepared," he said in an interview with DW.

Politics reacts

Politics seems to have come to its senses and is trying to catch up with the tech giants. In 2022, the European Union adopted the Law on Digital Services. The goal is to remove illegal content, such as hate speech, more quickly. At the same time, it must better protect users' basic rights - including freedom of speech.

Also, researchers should finally have access to the Internet giants' data. Berlin-based social network researcher Philipp Lorenz-Spreen rejoices: "Something is happening in the field of transparency, that we can finally open up that black box a bit and see how that machinery works."

Either way, they are very profitable. Facebook's parent company Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, made so much money from advertising in the last quarter of 2023 that it decided to pay dividends to its shareholders for the first time in her 20th anniversary. At least they can have something to celebrate./ DW

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