Is Facebook evil?

facebook evil

By Mark Schaefer

Five years ago I predicted that Facebook would become the most evil company on earth. The claim was tongue-in-cheek, but the logic was solid:

  1. The “raw material” that Facebook uses to build its wealth is our personal information.
  2. As a public company, Facebook has a mandate to grow its profits every quarter, without exception, without end.
  3. At some point, to meet that relentless financial goal, Facebook will have to take greater and greater risks in both collecting our personal information and monetizing it.
  4. … and that sets up the potential for evil.

We caught a glimpse of how Facebook might do this when the doors were blown open on a controversial experiment the company conducted to manipulate emotions through the news feed.

What is really going on at Facebook? Will my prediction eventually become true? Is Facebook evil?

Facebook evil, the inside story

A number of high-profile executives have recently weighed-in on the “Facebook evil” factor:

  • In his final days as president, Barack Obama himself warned that Facebook and Twitter were becoming a threat to democracy. “We become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
  • Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya recently echoed this sentiment. “Do I feel guilty? Absolutely I feel guilt,” he told CNN. “Nobody ever thought that you could have such a massive manipulation of the system. You can see the reaction of the people who run these (social media) companies. They never thought it was possible.”
  • Sean Parker, who briefly served as Facebook’s president, said the social networking site exploits human psychological vulnerabilities through a validation feedback loop that gets people to constantly post to get even more likes and comments. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he said. “The inventors, creators understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

The psychology behind Facebook became the center of a public debate when a story about a company called Dopamine showed how it is using psychology and neuroscience to manipulate users into a state of social media addiction.

And, it’s working.

Is social media addiction OK?

What is the ethical boundary? Don’t all business people want customers to be “addicted” to their products? If you’re a public company like Facebook, don’t you in fact have a mandate to make customers addicted to your business?

“God only knows what Facebook is doing to our children’s brains,” Sean Parker said at a recent event.

But it doesn’t take God to figure it out. Some university researchers are already putting the puzzle together. A study shows that the number of teens experiencing severe anxiety (with social media a leading cause) is exploding. When does business and public health collide and crash?

I have to wonder … when will the world wake-up and understand the full truth of Facebook? And what will it mean to marketing when that happens?

Let’s explore some more …

Tom Webster and I thought this would be an excellent debate for our latest episode of The Marketing Companion. What are the ethics of social media addiction?

In this episode, Tom and I also cover the current state of Twitter. Their third quarter earnings announcement beat Wall Street expectations and user growth had a surge. How does Twitter fit today in the marketing mix?

A third topic on our program is a news event that shook social media and I’m not sure most people caught its significance … A Chinese company bought part of Snapchat’s parent company. We discuss why this is a watershed moment in the history of social media marketing.

And finally, Tom brings out a favorite piece of spam to demonstrate once again that it’s not annoying … it’s an art form! Let’s go …

Click on this link to listen to Episode 118

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Many thanks to our friend Scott Monty for the awesome show intro. Be sure to check out his amazing newsletter The Full Monty and his new podcast available here: fullmontyshow.com.

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