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Former Facebook execs warn of social media dangers to people and society

Facebook

By kostasgr | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 12/13/17 - updated on 12/13/17

The popular sharing site is designed to be addictive, planners say

It’s almost as if the CEO of a famous soft drink company came out and said he refuses to let his kids drink the stuff. Or the fellow in charge of safety checks at a leading automobile manufacturer admitted that he gets nervous when he drives the vehicles over 60 mph.

Two former executives at Facebook have expressed deep reservations about what effects social media is having on the minds of young people and on society in general.

In early November, Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, said in an interview with Axios that social networks intentionally hook people and potentially hurt our brains.

When a social network “grows to a billion or 2 billion people … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Parker said. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Parker, who is founder and chairman of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, said that when Facebook was in its development phase, its planners were thinking of ways to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” The answer was to play on people’s need for attention and affirmation.

“And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”

Days later, Facebook’s former head of user growth concurred, saying Facebook encourages “fake, brittle popularity,” leaving users feeling empty and needing another hit, according to The Verge. In a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya suggested that this “vicious circle” drives people to keep sharing posts that they think will gain other people’s approval.

The effect that Facebook has on society is bad enough, in his view, that people should take a “hard break” from it. He said he tries to use it as little as possible, and won’t allow his children to use it at all.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, [but] misinformation, mistruth,” said Palihapitiya, who is now CEO of Social Capital. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

Palihapitiya could speak from his experience at Facebook, but other social media platforms can be just as bad, he suggested. In India, for example, some people shared hoax messages about kidnappings on WhatsApp, ultimately resulting in the lynching of seven innocent people.

“Imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs,” said Palihapitiya.

Facebook has responded to Palihapitiya’s criticism, saying that he has not worked there for six years.

“Facebook was a very different company back then,” the company said, as reported by Fortune magazine. “As we have grown, we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve… We are also making significant investments more in people technology and processeses, and—as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call—we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.”

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