Social media is no stranger to harsh criticism. Lately, most of it has been directed toward Facebook, even though other platforms face similar issues.
We know that people waste too much time using it, and inaccurate information spreads so quickly that legitimate material gets shouted down. Now, more serious problems are coming to light.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a media blitz last month to deal with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica data outrage, proclaiming it “a major breach of trust,” adding, “I’m really sorry that this happened” in interviews with reporters.
At the least, this was a devious use of personal information Facebook users made public. At worse, it violated election laws. The jury is still out — unless you consider stock values to be a jury.
Zuckerberg’s apology tour came after revelations that Trump campaign-linked Cambridge Analytica had siphoned off personal data from up to 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.
Facebook’s recent tribulations include Russian disinformation campaigns leading up to the 2016 elections, and a murderer publishing a video of his crime. Each has resulted in apologies from executives and vows to do better. Perhaps stronger filters, redesigned pages, and more employees reviewing posts will help things.
I initially got on social media — beginning with Facebook — for one reason: to keep up with our adult children whose own busy lives often resulted in infrequent phone calls. At the newspaper, reporters were already using Facebook and other platforms professionally to stay in touch with readers, so it was a simple extension to add a personal page to our home computer.
My experience has not been without frustration. Any attempts to challenge incorrect grammar, uncorroborated claims, and unfair comments have typically not been well received.
On the other side of the coin, I have been able to maintain or restore contacts with numerous school friends and distant relatives. The immediacy of digital communication often makes up for the lack of permanency that a written letter provides.
Social media is obviously worth billions of dollars to organizations that mine individual data for political or commercial gains, but its value to grandparents who live far away and want to see pictures of their grandchildren can’t be calculated. Social media can also prove its worth during emergencies or disasters. I had a small lesson about that last week while visiting family south of Austin. Maybe it wasn’t so much of a lesson as it was a reminder.
Heavy rains resulted in flash flooding in the area, and my drive back to Brownwood was delayed in order to avoid the worst of the storm. During the wait, power went out just as the sun was setting, leaving us literally in the dark on what was happening and where. Without power, internet service was out as well, but the cell phone towers remained operational. Data plans — overloaded as they were — allowed us to keep in touch with the outside world until electricity was restored after about an hour.
The next morning, nearby roads and highways were closed because of flooding or major accidents, and we were able to time our travels, or redirect our routes, until weather conditions had improved.
Social media can be beneficial, but knowing how to use it can prevent misfits from taking advantage of you. Zuckerberg has promised that Facebook would learn from this. Users of social media have things we need to learn, as well.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.