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Finn McRedmond: Is Facebook a scapegoat for all society’s ills?

Whistleblower news provides a target for anxiety about the world’s fragile state

As Halloween approaches I am reminded of its most influential cultural mark. Not the morphing of an ancient Celtic festival into its twee and plasticky modern incarnation. Nor any of its accoutrements: fancy dress, overindulgence, pumpkin (the worst the gourd family has to offer).

Rather, Halloween is a perfect time to honour one of our favourite pastimes: moral panics. In the 1970s an op-ed appeared in the New York Times suggesting that malign strangers might use trick-or-treating as a vehicle to poison children. It posed the question: what if an apple “from the kindly old lady down the block” in fact contained a hidden razor blade?

To buttress these seemingly unprompted concerns, the writer referred to two unconfirmed incidents of children being poisoned. By 1975 a Newsweek article claimed that over several years hundreds of children had narrowly escaped severe injury caused by contaminated Halloween candy. There was no evidence, but the moral panic had set in.

Our preponderance to indulge in moral panics is not just a convenient vehicle to deny reality, but a harmful obstruction to improving it

The general theory suggests that these types of urban legends arise when other parts of our lives are under strain, as a kind of misplaced anxiety. Historian W Scott Poole points out that America in the early 1970s presented fertile conditions for the genesis of this particular Halloween myth: the US had suffered defeat in Vietnam, saw the resignation of President Nixon in the wake of Watergate, and was suffering under rampant inflation and a stalling economy.

When social forces spiral beyond the control of individuals, fantasy can seem preferable to reality. And what better bogeyman? Nasty adults exploiting symbols of childlike innocence – candy, Halloween, trick-or-treating – to exact random and violent death.

Our preponderance to indulge in moral panics is not just a convenient vehicle to deny reality, but a harmful obstruction to improving it. The evidence to support the claim that video games encourage young men to become more violent is mushy at best, for example. There are plenty of instances where we can observe a correlation, but the causal factor is constantly disputed.

In the wake of two mass shootings in 2019, former US president Donald Trump trotted out the all-too-familiar line: “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society ... this includes the gruesome and grisly video games.”

The problem here is not just how uncertain we should be about the link he draws (though healthy scepticism is usually encouraged when it comes to such confident pronouncements of fact), but something more consequential: locating the blame for such tragedies in video games allowed Trump to avoid serious conversations about gun control.

We ought not overstate our shock and outrage that Facebook has emerged to be the sometimes pernicious force we already knew it was

These two features of moral panics – that they emerge in difficult social circumstances and that they redirect our attention away from productive discussions – spring to mind when watching the Facebook whistleblower news unfold over the past few days.

If the early 1970s in the US created ideal circumstances for moral panic, the past few years ought to be a boon for that industry. Brexit and the election of Trump rocked much of the political establishment, the pandemic has left people anxious and economies weak.

In such a febrile environment, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen dumped a whole cache of documents on the media. Among the revelations was that its own staff concluded Facebook contributed to the spread of misinformation, that Mark Zuckerberg runs the company with almost unchecked power, that staff were aware of harms Instagram caused to teenage girls, and that, mercifully, it is facing an existential threat thanks to an ageing user base. Facebook has strongly contested the allegations and said it does not put profit before the interests of its users.

All of this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Did we not already know about Facebook’s role in the spread of harmful or incorrect information? And anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can tell you Instagram feels tailor-made to make you miserable. We ought not overstate our shock and outrage that Facebook has emerged to be the sometimes pernicious force we already knew it was.

Rather than solely blaming Facebook for eroding democracy, ought we not interrogate the myriad reasons it appears to be so fragile in the first place?

And here is the significant harm: We cannot locate all of our anxieties on Facebook and Zuckerberg if we wish to make the world better. American conservatives might use video games to sidestep conversations about gun violence. Are we redirecting our attention from difficult issues – increasing political polarisation in an age of intense anxiety, for example – to the easy-to-digest scapegoat “Facebook”?

Fake news is worrisome and Facebook has a moral obligation to acknowledge and ameliorate its role in spreading it. But governments have a responsibility to impose unfriendly and stringent regulation on them too. Instagram is harmful to teenage girls but show me a social media platform that isn’t.

Documents indicate that the site often prioritised growth and profit at the expense of other policy. I am sure they are not the only company who would fail this particular litmus test.

Rather than solely blaming Facebook for eroding democracy, ought we not interrogate the myriad reasons it appears to be so fragile in the first place?

Facebook is hopefully facing a long overdue reckoning. But so long as we use it as a bogeyman for all of the ills we are facing, our efforts to improve will always fall short.