Say a prayer for Mark Zuckerberg — he has a lot on his plate these days.
The embattled founder and CEO of Facebook has been under fire for a few years now over a host of issues related to the world’s largest social media platform. Hate speech, fake news, election meddling and massive privacy breaches within the network have left the 35-year-old tech mogul squinting at both camera flashes and the glares of angry officials from several nations.
Earlier this month, Facebook’s former chief of security Alex Stamos called on Zuckerberg to resign, citing “a legit argument that he has too much power” from a communications empire that includes Instagram and WhatsApp.
Even college friend and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes recently agreed that the Facebook family needs to be broken up, and that Zuckerberg — who holds about 60% of the company’s voting shares — wields a “staggering” influence that is “un-American.”
While stressing that his longtime pal is “a good, kind person,” Hughes laments that Zuckerberg’s “unilateral control over (the) speech” of some 2 billion people is historically unprecedented.
You may think you’re saying whatever comes to mind in that social media post, but the global conversation is ultimately moderated by algorithms, which are sets of instructions that tell a device or application what to do. According to Hughes, Facebook’s engineers “write algorithms that select which user’s comments or experiences end up displayed in the news feeds of friends and family.”
These rules, which Hughes describes as being “so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them,” have the demonstrated potential to “change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders.”
Once we’re on Facebook, the algorithms essentially lead the way, Hughes said — and Zuckerberg leads the algorithms: “Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their news feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered.”
Furthermore, warns Hughes, Facebook has always sought “domination” by acquiring, copying or eliminating other platforms, making it a monopoly that “commands … more than 80% of the world’s social networking revenue.”
Hughes, who left Facebook in 2008, has urgently called for a government-ordered breakup of the social media giant, along with increased regulation to restore some balance of power.
Meanwhile, hopes that artificial intelligence (AI) will single-handedly eliminate offensive content on Facebook (or any other platform) are fading. While certainly useful in triaging the trash, AI can’t quite get the nuances of cultural, social and political contexts, and it ends up blocking legitimate material in its efforts to keep things clean, or at least tolerable.
So we would all seem to be victims of algorithms run amok, and indeed we are — but the offending script is far more ancient than any computer language.
The real issue with our digital communications, and with all human undertakings, lies in our hearts. Our outward actions are reflections of an algorithm written by God, yet marred by sin. Christ has corrected our flawed code, that we might live in love.
Long before Facebook or the internet itself, the Second Vatican Council examined how we communicate with each other through modern media. Written at a time when push-button phones were considered cutting edge, the conciliar document Inter Mirifica (“Among the Wonders”) acknowledged that media can produce both tremendous good or unspeakable evil — something the document’s authors, who had witnessed the atrocities fueled by Nazi propaganda, knew all too well.
Because of the enormous power inherent in mass communications, “all those involved should form a correct conscience on the use of the media” (Inter Mirifica, No. 5).
Our modes of communication are not ends in and of themselves; they are subject to “the absolute primacy of the objective moral order” (Inter Mirifica, No. 6).
If we keep this in mind, we can avoid much of the headache and heartache that comes from our media missteps. We can also use the God-given gift of social communications to their fullest and most life-affirming potential.
In recent years, the speed at which our communications have evolved has left us digitally dizzy. We post, like, share and tweet nonstop, blurring the lines between public and private life. Everything is up for comment, no matter how trivial. We are intoxicated by information, whether true or false.
To regain some sense of equilibrium, we take “digital sabbaths” or demand government regulation, as Facebook’s critics have sought.
Such measures will only partially address our social communications problems. As author Cal Newport observes in “Digital Minimalism,” we need to “rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation.”
Facebook and modern media are not beyond the hand of the Lord, who knows a thing or two about algorithms: he created the universe through one that began with the command “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).
If we allow him to reconfigure our hearts and minds, we can program a world — both online and offline — in which the news feed heralds joy, and the trending topic is love.
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