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Facebook Isn’t the Problem

Despite not mentioning libraries or having anything specifically to do with libraries, this opinion article about regulating Facebook was a Library Link of the Day. It ends with this dire and ridiculous warning:

This makes for a dangerous mix: a company that reaches most of the country every day and has the most detailed set of personal data ever assembled, but has no incentive to prevent abuse. Facebook. Facebook needs to be regulated more tightly, or broken up so that no single entity controls all of its data. The company won’t protect us by itself, and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

The article annoyed me. The fact that anyone would consider this a library issue annoyed me. And probably some other things annoyed me, too, but I’ll go with those for now.

Facebook is not the problem. Nobody is forced to use Facebook. Nobody is forced to look at advertisements on Facebook. Facebook is a choice, just like democracy is a choice.

Blaming Facebook for anything is just pretending that people aren’t freely choosing. The people blaming Facebook think they’re freely choosing, but that everyone else is a victim of propaganda. They’ve got The Truth, and everyone else is a dupe. Yeah, that seems likely.

Facebook isn’t a threat to democracy. It’s democracy in action. That’s what the people want. That’s democracy. Democracy is getting what other people deserve. Democracy is Candy Crush and Farmville. Democracy is a bunch of ignorant people making bad choices because they don’t know any better. Democracy is the rule of the crowd, and the crowd is stupid.

However, we in America don’t live in a democracy. We never have lived in a democracy. We use somewhat democratic means to periodically, peacefully, and partially change the makeup of the bodies that supposedly represent us within the government.

How is any of this related to libraries? My best guess is the nonsense that librarians and the ALA have been peddling since the last Presidential election: that libraries are somehow going to save us all from a President elected through the somewhat democratic means that we have in place and that are supposedly in danger.

The argument seems to be that “fake news” from Russia on Facebook caused people to vote otherwise than they should have, that librarians can teach everyone how to spot fake news, and that once people learn to spot fake news they’ll vote the way librarians think they should vote.

If it sounds pretty stupid when I put it that way, that’s because it is stupid. Librarians aren’t going to save the world, and they’re not going to save democracy, whatever they might mean by that contested term.

What all the hyperbolic alarmists don’t want to admit is that the system worked. Clinton won the popular vote, but that has no significance in a Presidential election, because, wait for it…WE DON’T LIVE IN A DEMOCRACY.

President Trump won the election. He didn’t cheat the system. Fake news didn’t give him an Electoral College victory. Facebook didn’t vote in the election. People voted.

Oh, but they were the victims of propaganda by the Russians! And Facebook is to blame!

Perhaps the relatively small number of people in the small number of states that swung the Electoral College to Trump were all the victims of Russian propaganda and if they hadn’t been they’d have voted for Clinton.

And perhaps Hillary Clinton is running a child prostitution ring from the basement of a pizza shop. Perhaps Nazis are hiding out on the moon waiting to attack us and take over the world. Any other conspiracy theories you want to throw into the mix?

For eight years social media was bombarded with the delusional diatribes of people who thought President Obama was the antichrist, or he was going to start a military dictatorship, or whatever paranoid dystopian fantasies people like that believe.

Now we’ve experienced a year where those nutters are still stewing in their paranoid juices, but now there are entirely new paranoid dystopian fantasies.

Democracy is under threat because people freely choose to associate on a social media platform! And they’re stupid enough to get most of their news from there! And they see advertising that they aren’t forced to look at or believe! Oh no!!

Which leads us to the result that the Presidential election was won by a man that the majority of voters didn’t vote for and the majority of people polled don’t seem to like.

Do you know how that would be a democratic problem? If we lived in a democracy. WHICH WE DON’T.

You might say the problem is the Electoral College, unless your candidate is the one winning the Electoral College.

You might say the problem is the overrepresentation of people in states with small populations, unless you’re one of those people.

The “problem” people have with government is whatever they believe leads to a conclusion they don’t like. Right now it’s Facebook and Trump.

If Clinton had won, it would be a different, and less mainstream, publication complaining about Facebook being a vast liberal conspiracy, and all the librarians would be laughing at how crazy that sounds, just the way I’m laughing now.

But that’s the nonsense people would have us believe.

People like this person, who a few years ago was obsessed enough with Twitter to write a book about it, and who now wants social media to go away because bad things and Russians happen. Read this bit of rationalizing:

One of the problems is that these platforms act, in many ways, like drugs. Facebook, and every other social-media outlet, knows that all too well. Your phone vibrates a dozen times an hour with alerts about likes and comments and retweets and faves. The combined effect is one of just trying to suck you back in, so their numbers look better for their next quarterly earnings report.

No, no, no, no, no. My phone doesn’t vibrate a dozen times an hour, because I’m not foolish enough to set it up that way. Phones don’t just vibrate by themselves. Well, I guess they do, but people have to set them up to vibrate. Only then do they vibrate by themselves.

People were foolish to believe social media was going to be some sort of social salvation, and now they’re foolish enough to believe that social media will destroy society.

Facebook isn’t the problem. If it wasn’t Facebook, it would be something else supposedly destroying the democracy we don’t actually live in.

People are the problem. People and their foolish beliefs and actions are the problem, and those never go away.

That’s why we have a government that was designed to protect us from the stupidity of crowds, majority rule, and the will of the mob, all the things social media exacerbates.

Whether it ever actually works that way is questionable, but one thing is certain: there’s nothing librarians as librarians can do about it. Go vote. Go canvas. Go run for office. But please don’t think that your mad librarian skills are going to save democracy. You’re just deluding yourself.

And if you want to fight against fake news? Quit blaming Facebook for all our social problems, because that’s just more fake news.

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Comments

  1. anonymous coward says:

    Well done.

  2. Bulls eye identifying this kind of thing that reverberates around ALA then gets repackaged as a million cheesy conference presentations about how we are saving civilization on a shoestring and volunteer basis.

  3. “What all the hyperbolic alarmists don’t want to admit is that the system worked. Clinton won the popular vote, but that has no significance in a Presidential election, because, wait for it…WE DON’T LIVE IN A DEMOCRACY.”

    Well, maybe we do:
    … “But there is no basis for saying that the United States is somehow “not a democracy, but a republic.” “Democracy” and “republic” aren’t just words that a speaker can arbitrarily define to mean something (e.g., defining democracy as “a form of government in which all laws are made directly by the people”). They are terms that have been given meaning by English speakers more broadly. And both today and in the Framing era, “democracy” has been generally understood to include representative democracy as well as direct democracy.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/13/is-the-united-states-of-america-a-republic-or-a-democracy/?utm_term=.91b0d287c26d

  4. Libertarian Librarian says:

    Thank you! We have enough to do and fight for in library world. We don’t need to tilt at windmills. Thank you for stating the obvious–We don’t live in a democracy. “In a republic, it is not the people themselves who make the decisions, but the people they themselves choose to stand in their places.”–James Madison. That’s why we have elections! That’s why there is the Electoral College. Would I like to see a proportional vote system similar to Maine and Nebraska? Yes. But, we don’t have that at this time.

  5. Laura Staley says:

    Actually, teaching students to recognize fake news is of direct interest to academic librarians. Most of us have something in our school goals to the effect that we teach students to be able to evaluate information for reliability, bias, etc. The thought is that if they don’t have a framework for recognizing bad information, all the other good skills they learn – if they depend on outside information – will be less effective. Sort of a “Garbage in, garbage out” sort of thing.

    So it’s not a public library issue, or a special library issue, but it is a K-12 library issue and a college/university library issue. Regulating Facebook is of interest to us because we can then talk about how it’s regulated, does it work, etc.

  6. Lee Pittsfield says:

    I recently purchased a new Android phone, and I was quickly reminded that vibrations/notifications ON was the default setting. I immediately change all of my settings so that I only get notifications of phone calls, calendar reminders, and text messages, but that’s not how the vast majority of users configure their phones.

    Might be different on iOS, but it’s worth noting that many phone users don’t opt to (or know how to) change many of the default settings.

    But more to the topic, fake news and misinformation existed long before social media. As librarians, we previously had the ability to filter it out before it got to our users through collection development. Now we equip them to handle the consequences of easier access.

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