A friend posted the other day that the idea of Facebook being toxic was ridiculous. This was over-hyped nonsense she thought and restricting Facebook was going to restrict free speech. In short, her response was “dislike.”

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen quit her job in May after filling her thumb drive with a trove of internal documents making clear that the company knows a great deal about the effects of its product on users of the platform.

Pausing there for just a moment, let’s ponder the actual product. As the saying goes: if the product is free, you’re the product. When you first enter the realm of Facebook, you see a message that Facebook is a free platform and always will be. The business model of the platform is to sell the data analytics that are derived from billions of people interacting with each other on a common platform.

Too wonky? How about this…  Let’s say you own a bar. You offer Karaoke night on Tuesdays – your slowest night of the week – to attract more business. Customers can get up, be silly, sing along with Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and have a memorable night. They buy their drinks, but the Karaoke is free and always will be.

This catches on. You add more Karaoke nights and then add a night of poetry readings – same idea. No charge for the microphone, but you must pay for your beverages and chicken wings. It turns out, a lot of your customers would like to come for dinner and Karaoke/Poetry, so you expand your menu, including items like pizza and nachos.

Then you add a night of politics and religion, offering your microphone to groups who want to discuss hot topics that are confronting your community. What happens? You find that you have twice as many customers and they drink much more, making your little establishment much more profitable. So, you expand these offerings and reduce the number of Karaoke nights. Those are fun, but they’re not bringing in the number of customers (and their cash) that the political nights are.

The problem is that sometimes these forums get a little hot. Fist fights break out. Sometimes you have to call the cops to break it up.

When someone gets hurt, you tell the community, “It’s not my fault, I’m just providing the platform. I can’t tell people what to do with it.”

And here we are.

As a business owner, you offered something to your customers to bring them together, you looked at your sales information and adjusted your product offerings and you expanded the part of your business that was increasing revenue.

That’s what Facebook has done. Their data analysis has told them that angry users of their platform are more engaged with their content, so Facebook has adjusted their algorithms to basically reinforce that anger. It’s fair to point out that news organizations have always known this. You’re never going to see a headline that says “School Board meets, agrees on everything.” Controversy sells.

Facebook’s actions are similar to the bartender noticing that you’re drunk and belligerent and offering you a beer to settle down (so that you can continue drinking).

A bartender has a license, though, and can’t serve a person who is intoxicated. That’s what regulation does. It draws a clear line of accountability.

So we come back to Frances Haugen and her insights about Facebook’s effect on users. She advocates that Facebook be regulated and argues that the company’s greed has damaged our society and our democracy.

Facebook activated certain safety measures during last year’s election cycle to block foreign disinformation from flooding the feeds of users. That was certainly the right thing to do. The problem, she says, is that they disabled those same safety measures after the election was over, allowing the swampy conspiracy theories about cheating and stolen votes to flow freely to those who were looking for a criminal explanation for losing a free and fair election.

After Haugen’s testimony there was consensus that “something must be done” with no clear direction of what good regulation of Facebook would look like. The very last thing that we want is for members of Congress to be deciding anything about our marketplace of ideas.

jean bolducJean Bolduc is a freelance writer and the host of the Weekend Watercooler on 97.9 The Hill. She is the author of “African Americans of Durham & Orange Counties: An Oral History” (History Press, 2016) and has served on Orange County’s Human Relations Commission, The Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina, the Orange County Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, and the Orange County Schools’ Equity Task Force. She was a featured columnist and reporter for the Chapel Hill Herald and the News & Observer.

Readers can reach Jean via email – jean@penandinc.com and via Twitter @JeanBolduc

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