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No Dilemma Here: Watch "The Facebook Dilemma" on PBS's 'Frontline,' If You Can
October 29, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

First, a confession. I’m an avid, but not obsessive, user of both Facebook and Twitter. I see the good in social media, and the bad, too. I’m not naive. Frankly, though, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke, in which Facebook’s minders were found to be asleep at the switch while the social network site was flooded with misinformation and fake news pages during the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, my immediate reaction was that the amateurish, over-the-top fakery was easy enough to spot for anyone with even a modicum of media literacy. If anyone fell for the sheer nonsense being spouted, I believed, it was on them. Media literacy — or media education, as taught in schools, as it is across large swathes of Europe and Scandinavia — is the key to combatting fake news, whether it’s on Infowars or, yes, Facebook.

I believed that then, and I still do. (Media education would work wonders for primetime TV, too, since a more demanding audience, readers of TVWW, wouldn’t tolerate bad TV from the mainstream TV networks. But that’s a debate for another day.)

Media education can only go so far in a media landscape where opinion — especially loud opinion — counts for more than information, and where too many elected officials regard education of any kind with fear and suspicion.

That’s why the two-part PBS Frontline investigative program The Facebook Dilemma is so timely and important. If you watch just one news and information program leading up to the Nov. 6 elections, make it this one. The Facebook Dilemma belongs at the top of your to-do list. (Quick programming note: Regular viewers of Frontline need to know the program schedule is different, for this episode. The Facebook Dilemma airs in two parts: Monday at 9 p.m. ET and Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, check local listings.)

As The Facebook Dilemma makes clear from the beginning, Facebook’s problems aren’t limited to “bad actors” — trade-speak for troll farms in the former Soviet Union that lie behind fake accounts and dodgy news pages.

Facebook has been shown to be lacking when it comes to protecting users’ private, personal data. That’s a big issue when the social media network was created to allow friends and family to connect and share information with each other all over the world, wherever they may be. In The Facebook Dilemma’s opening moments, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is shown assuring Facebook users that the social network will not share their personal information, “except where they ask for it to be shared.”

Well, yes and no.

Technological optimism — the idea that social media is a force for good, and that technology can cure all society’s ills — is deeply ingrained into our system of values and beliefs. Zuckerberg’s quest to connect the world would bring about historic change, with far-reaching consequences in politics, privacy, and technology. It was inevitable that the initial intoxicating vision of a social network that would connect people around the world would morph into a lucrative — and profitable — business plan.

We now know that Facebook’s profits, unprecedented even by today’s standards, masked deep-rooted problems, ranging from security concerns to unintended side-effects on the public conversation and, eventually, who we vote for, and why.

The warning signs were there early, The Facebook Dilemma reveals, for anyone who cared to look.

And that’s the real problem here: Did Facebook’s minders care to look, and how hard did they work to identify and root out the causes?

Zuckerberg has made a clear and compelling case for Facebook’s origins, but as The Facebook Dilemma shows, he’s proved to be stiff, evasive, and weirdly disconnected when called on to explain Facebook’s moral, ethical, and technological failings, whether it’s before a U.S. Senate committee hearing or in front of the European Parliament. Europe is a special case because parliamentarians there swear by regulation and stiff rules, with the legal power to levy exorbitant fines when necessary; Europeans themselves are media savvy — media education in the schools, remember — and are particularly sensitive to government intrusion into private lives, owing to decades of government-sanctioned surveillance and interference in authoritarian Cold War states like the former East Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Albania and countless states bordering the former Soviet Union. Americans look at an all-seeing, all-powerful social media network and see reason for optimism and hope; Europeans look at an all-seeing, all-powerful social media network and see cause for suspicion — fear and loathing in Brussels. It’s no coincidence that the most active players in manipulating social media sites like Facebook are based in the former Soviet Union, where Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is a former KGB officer who worked in counter-intelligence (his first post after KGB training) before being transferred to surveillance and monitoring other countries’ consular officials in his native Leningrad (Saint Petersburg, today).

Early in the program, The Facebook Dilemma focuses on Facebook’s idealistic role in driving the Arab Spring, and for a moment there it looks as if the social network is going to realize its dream of encouraging and supporting democracy by the people, for the people, across the entire planet.

The Arab Spring proved to be a false dawn, though, as we now know, in more ways than one.

Facebook grew too quickly for its own good, and inevitably the all-seeing, far-reaching social network became impossible for a close-knit team of 20-somethings to monitor every stream, in every country, throughout the world. Artificial intelligence — machine learning — is nowhere near as effective at spotting fake accounts and monitoring false news sites than actual human beings. The only way to monitor Facebook properly is to hire tens of thousands of expert monitors, actual living human beings with proper media training, and that would be expensive.

More importantly, as The Facebook Dilemma points out midway through its first hour, Facebook’s entire raison d’être changed, from a social network connecting friends and family to a revenue-generating engine for advertising. Facebook no longer cares if you want to keep in touch with your grandma halfway around the world; it wants to sell you stuff, and make lots of money doing it.

The one thing that jumps out after the first night of The Facebook Dilemma is how smart, bright and visionary Zuckerberg was when he was creating Facebook as a force for good, and how woefully inept and unprepared he is to confront and deal with the fallout when things go wrong. As they inevitably do. In public appearances, whether it’s in front of Congress in Washington, DC or before a conference of tech journalists in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg comes across as the quintessential terminal adolescent, the geek caught in the harsh spotlight of the media glare who will never grow up, who’s brilliant in his own way but who should never be allowed anywhere near anything to do with social engineering, let alone politics and the messy reality of divisive elections.

There’s no dilemma in deciding whether to watch The Facebook Dilemma. What we have here is a teachable moment. The Facebook Dilemma is smart and incisive, timely and relevant, thought-provoking and, at times, genuinely frightening. It’s the closest thing to Must See TV you will see this election season.

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I would love to have the reactions of different age groups to the documentary.
Nov 1, 2018   |  Reply
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