Editorial: Facebook, Free Speech, and Disinformation

Well, as many of you already know, I left Facebook at the end of last year as my New Year’s resolution. But you might not know that I have now resurrected my account on the Facebook social network.

In my first post to my Facebook timeline (and perhaps the only one I am willing to make for quite some time), I write the following:

Yes, after leaving Facebook at the end of last year as my New Year’s resolution, and asking Facebook to delete over 13 years’ worth of data it had collected about me, I have decided to set up an account again.

Why? Well, as a social VR/virtual worlds blogger, I want to be able to cover Facebook’s new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, and that apparently will require an account on the Facebook social network to use (it launches in closed beta in early 2020).

So, I am back, but don’t expect me to post a lot, or use this account very much. After the Cambridge Analytica/Trump/Brexit scandal (covered so well by the Netflix documentary The Great Hack), I am very, VERY wary to share a lot of data here for Facebook to strip-mine for profit!

Which leads me (in a roundabout way) to the point of this blogpost. There is an exceptionally well-written, well-reasoned article by Siva Vaidhyanathan on The Guardian newspaper website, titled Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand free speech in the 21st century. Dr. Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of the book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. He addresses a recent speech Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave to students at Georgetown University, which has been criticized by many commentators, including Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice:

I strongly urge you to read Dr. Vaidhyanathan’s article yourself, but I did want to quote a few sections that I thought made insightful arguments:

Facebook has three defining attributes that make Facebook Facebook. Its scale of 2.4 billion people uploading content in more than 150 languages make it too big to filter. Its algorithmic design that amplifies content judged to attract attention and interaction (clicks, shares, likes, comments) favors extremism and powerful emotions over rational and measured expression. And the cheap and effective advertising system is monumentally profitable and thus starves other sources of good information of needed revenue.

In his speech Thursday Zuckerberg boasted that the Black Lives Matter movement started on Facebook. It did. But it also almost died there. It jumped to Twitter and thrived. As the internet scholar Zeynep Tufekci has explained, Facebook’s algorithmic system squelched #BlackLivesMatter and other activist movements as it was promoting vapid images like the Ice Bucket Challenge. On Twitter, with much lighter algorithmic amplification, #BlackLivesMatter could hold attention.

Zuckerberg also neglected the fact that the largest Black Lives Matter group on Facebook was hosted by a white man from Australia and was otherwise completely fake.

Zuckerberg wants us to believe that one must be for or against free speech with no nuance, complexity or cultural specificity, despite running a company that’s drowning in complexity. He wants our discussions to be as abstract and idealistic as possible. He wants us not to look too closely at Facebook itself.

The problem of the 21st century is cacophony. Too many people are yelling at the same time. Attentions fracture. Passions erupt. Facts crumble. It’s increasingly hard to deliberate deeply about complex crucial issues with an informed public. We have access to more knowledge yet we can’t think and talk like adults about serious things.

By invoking all the progressive social movements that have found Facebook useful, Zuckerberg tries to hitch his company to their results. But ignoring the Nazis and misogynists who also use Facebook to organize and recruit, he hopes we equate motivation with free speech and democracy.

The thing is, a thriving democracy needs more than motivation, the ability to find and organize like-minded people. Democracies also need deliberation. We have let the institutions that foster discussion among well informed, differently-minded people crumble. Soon all we will have left is Facebook. Look at Myanmar to see how well that works.

This is a perfect encapsulation of what I think is wrong with Facebook. Put simply, Facebook has too much power, and it wields that power in a demonstrably inconsistent fashion when it comes to free speech.

So, informed by past experience, I will severely limit how much information I choose to share on Facebook, and who I choose to befriend. I will restrict when and how often I check Facebook (for example, I will not install the app on my iPhone, and I will only access the Facebook website via a Chrome browser with the highly-recommended F.B. Purity extension added).

And I do not want to live in a world where Facebook has the loudest megaphone. I will continue to pursue and peruse my news from authoritative sources outside Facebook, such as The Guardian. And I will actively promote campaigns such as BreakTheFake, which provide helpful tips for consumers to determine fact from fiction on the Internet.

Social media such as Facebook has been weaponized, and is being used against us. The situation demands that we all become smarter consumers of information. The future absolutely depends on it.

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OC6 Starts Today: What Will Facebook Announce?

Today is the opening day of Oculus Connect 6 (OC6), a two-day event at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in sunny, warm California, and it’s all everybody who is anybody in virtual reality and augmented reality has been talking about for weeks.

Even Facebook’s CEO has been in on the game, teasing users with cryptic announcements such as this one:

(RPG is short for role-playing game, in case you’re not up on the lingo. And Ready Player One, of course, is last year’s hit movie about virtual reality.)

Mark’s Facebook post led UploadVR to speculate:

What exactly could Zuckerberg be teasing here? In Ready Player One, the Oasis is an all-encompassing virtual metaverse that allows anyone to be whoever they want and do whatever they want. It’s so good that humanity basically loses itself inside the new world. We don’t think VR is quite ready for something of that scale, but this tease could be taking the first steps towards something like that.

We’ve written in the past about how confusing Facebook’s scattered social VR policy has been. Facebook Spaces appears to be all but forgotten about, Oculus Rooms never left Gear VR and Go, and Oculus Quest still doesn’t have its own social VR experience powered by Facebook.

Could we perhaps see Facebook announced a definitive social destination across Oculus Rift and Quest? … Maybe we’re just getting carried away, but it’s an exciting thought.

We’ll have to watch along with the keynote to find out.

Unfortunately, I am stuck here in the plunging autumn temperatures of Winnipeg, teaching undergraduate agriculture students how to use the library effectively to complete their assigments. So, alas, I am going to have to rely on second-hand accounts of what’s going on at OC6. If I am lucky, I might be able to catch the livestreams of Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote address and other events on the OculusConnect.com website, while I am multi-tasking (here are more details on how to watch from CNET). Of course, it’s not the same thing as actually being there.

And I am hoping (much like UploadVR) that there will be some sort of hint of Facebook’s code-named “Metaverse” social VR platform for Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, and Oculus Rift and Rift S users (which I’m willing to bet will be based on Oculus Home). Facebook has the capacity to steamroller the nascent social VR marketplace, and they’re not above using some dirty tactics to gain market share from competitors, according to a report compiled by SnapChat of their aggressive tactics, which has been submitted to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

So, stay tuned. Some interesting announcements may come out today or tomorrow.

Editorial: Facebook and Oculus Have Too Much Power Over Virtual Reality and the Metaverse

Facebook already has amply demonstrated how little they value the privacy and data rights of its users, in a succession of scandals uncovered by the New York Times and many other news media over the past couple of years (image from Forbes).

Facebook has the resources to capably crush competitors. Strip-mining the data of the estimated 2.7 billion people worldwide who use Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger each month has been extremely lucrative for the company. (The five billion dollar fine the U.S. FTC recently levied against Facebook for their privacy lapses was a mere slap on the wrist, given the income the company generates each year from advertising. Mark Zuckerberg probably found the money from his couch cushions.)

I have already written about industry gossip that Facebook is plowing resources into creating a metaverse platform for all its Oculus VR hardware users. I willing to bet, dollars to doughnuts, that the Facebook metaverse is going to look a lot like Oculus Home, which is the where you are deposited when you first put on your headset. You can now visit other people’s homes, and recent updates include the ability for users to create their own spaces by uploading their own 3D models.

Some Examples of Oculus Home Interiors

Even better, Facebook gives you free furniture every week you sign into Oculus Home at least once, which you can use to decorate your space. It’s not hard to see how this can compete with social VR platforms like Sansar and virtual worlds like Second Life. And Facebook has deep pockets to fund advertising campaigns that companies like Linden Lab cannot ever hope to match.

And, of course, there is the complete line of Oculus VR hardware, including the popular new wireless Oculus Quest headset, which Mark Zuckerberg recently reported is selling as fast as Facebook can make them.

Which leads to the point of this editorial: in this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem with the Oculus Home and the Oculus Store that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.

Now, you can argue that Facebook has competition from other VR headsets such as the HTC Vive line of products and the Valve Index. And the Steam software distribution platform is an alternative to the Oculus Store. I understand that my purchased programs from the Oculus Store can still be played on an HTC Vive or Valve Index with the Revive software, which is somewhat reassuring to me (although I suppose there is nothing really stopping Facebook if they choose to block that avenue at some point in the future).

More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.

Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.

Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually verify this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which I highly recommend you watch).

We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxers. The Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the f***ing mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.

We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.