BreakPoint: Zuckerberg Theater on Capitol Hill

Facebook and Us

Last week, the Senate and the House grilled Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s use of data. Maybe someone else should have been on the hot seat, too.

This past week saw the most-anticipated theatrical performance in Washington in years, and I’m not talking about “Hamilton” coming to the Kennedy Center in a few months.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress was two days of what is sometimes called “political theater;” or, gestures and actions designed to give people the feeling that “something” is being done about a problem without actually doing anything about it.

The problem is the outsized influence of Facebook on American life and culture. What started as concern over Russia’s use of Facebook to influence the 2016 elections has turned into what one writer called “moral panic over the impact of tech on our wellbeing.”

Among the reasons I count Zuckerberg’s appearance on Capitol Hill as mere theater is that he wasn’t the only person who should have been testifying. If we are truly concerned about technology’s impact on our wellbeing, we should question ourselves.

Let me be clear: I’m not defending Zuckerberg’s or any other tech executive’s actions. There’s plenty to criticize. In his testimony, Zuckerberg was either in denial or disingenuous about the huge role his company plays in our culture. While, he’d have us believe that Facebook is merely a platform that enables people to “connect,” anyone who has used Facebook for more than five minutes should know that just isn’t true.

Facebook anticipates what it thinks you want to see and gives you plenty of it. It filters out what it thinks you don’t want to see. To use a fancy word, it “curates” our news and other information.

In fact, we’d be hard pressed to think of anything that has more powerfully shaped our culture than Zuckerberg’s college creation. It’s certainly been more powerful than the Congress questioning it last week. Think about it: What else in the last decade has more powerfully shaped how Americans do relationships, get their news, spend their money, use their leisure time, determine their political positions, and for too many, get their theology than Facebook?

But, even more insane is that people are doing this voluntarily. Blaming Facebook for allegedly misleading Americans about what was going on during the 2016 elections is a way of avoiding personal responsibility for our choices about how and where we get our news. And the idea that Congress can somehow “fix” this by regulation? Not if we are our own captors.

From the start, people like media theorist Douglas Rushkoff have told us that, “We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.”

Specifically, they are selling information about us to advertisers. And we are all too willing to share that information, not only with Facebook, but with the world. Facebook and other social media platforms are more than tools to use, they are worlds we live in.

Of course, Facebook could make the controls over what information is shared a lot simpler to manage. But, it’s equally true that most people wouldn’t bother to use them.

In the end, very little, if anything, of substance will come out of Zuckerberg’s limited engagement on Capitol Hill. As the New York Times’ podcast, “The Daily” noted, Zuckerberg faced some tough questions—especially from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but the damage done to the company was minimal. In fact, Facebook stock went up 4.5 percent when the congressional play began.

Some will stop using Facebook out of privacy concerns, and others will dramatically change how they use it and what they share. But a million federal regulations later, Facebook will still be more powerful in shaping culture than the Congress who imposed them. And many of us will continue to be willing participants.

To paraphrase a line from a master of theater, the fault, dear listener, lies not in Facebook, but in ourselves.

 

Zuckerberg Theater on Capitol Hill: Facebook and Us

We can take advantage of this very public mess as an opportunity to evaluate our own use and dependence on all sources of social media, not just Facebook. As believers, we should not be “conformed to this world,” but we should be influencing the culture around us for Christ.

 

Resources

Listen to The Daily: Congress vs. Mark Zuckerberg
  • Michael Barbaro | New York Times | April 11, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg Testifies on Facebook before Skeptical Lawmakers
  • Kevin Roose, Cecelia Kang | New York Times | April 10, 2018
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
  • Neil Postman | Penguin Books Publisher | November 1985

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  • Just One Voice

    “But even more insane is that people are doing this voluntarily. Blaming Facebook for allegedly misleading Americans about what was going
    on during the 2016 elections is a way of avoiding personal
    responsibility for our choices about how and where we get our news.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! It is a big pet peeve of mine when people conveniently shift the blame when there is something they could so readily do about it. It’s just waiting for them right in their lap.

    I, for on, got rid of facebook. I kinda regret to say that I even did it to begin with. But I did. Even did myspace for a little while in college. Thank the LORD I got out of that! Whoo! Other than commenting on here, I try to keep as low of an online profile as possible.

    • urbanvrwcmom

      Same here, dear!

  • Scott

    “Facebook will still be more powerful in shaping culture than the Congress who imposed them. And many of us will continue to be willing participants.”

    I stopped using Facebook more than 5 years ago… but I wonder if as a Christ follower I should have taken the opposite approach? Perhaps I was wrong. If I believe in the deity of Christ than I probably should follow His instruction and engage our culture there too.

    • Just One Voice

      Obviously, that decision is between you and Christ. But for my two cents, I’d say you’re okay leaving Facebook to do its own thing. It’s still early, but I’ve been picking up little hints that people are getting hungry/thirsty for the real deal again. What I mean, is that some people are (maybe) waking up from the digital slumber, looking for more physical attempts to heal & be rescued. And let’s be honest, digital talk simply isn’t the same as real talk & real friendships where you’re side by side and getting “skin in the game.” Having said that though, I certainly won’t limit our God’s power and put online stuff “out of bounds.”

      Okay enough from me. I know He will provide a solid answer on how Scott should do ministry 🙂

      • Scott

        I really like your emphasis on face to face… physical presence as an essential part of developing personal relationships that lead to “real friendships.” Believe it or not that is my main emphasis as I draw closer to Christ. I volunteer as a coach, various events at my son’s school and in our church trying to bring Christ with me wherever I go… it gets tricky at school and as a coach but I’ve found the kids can do whatever they want… including player lead team prayer.

        My wife and I have engaged our entire neighborhood… three of our neighbors who haven’t previously gone to church have now attended our church and more are asking questions. One is even a member! We take one of our neighbors kids to church for them (even though they do not attend… yet) and the kids mom is part of our small group. My wife has become good friends with her.

        All this is to affirm what you say, your insight is great… Thank you!

    • ah.1960

      Engaging the culture is the right idea.

      Whether I sign up for “free” services like Facebook and Gmail or even sign up for my local grocery store loyalty card, the benefit to the other party is that they get access to information about me: who I am, my interests, my shopping habits, etc. (Anyone who does not understand this basic idea probably should not be online!)

      The question becomes, “How much privacy do I want to exchange in order to take advantage of the benefit being offered.”

      • Scott

        Thank you for your input… you are definitely right about engaging the culture. You also make a good point about privacy.