Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Should Facebook ‘listen’ to activists over climate change?

Facebook has for years been a central part of our social media life. But our online activities could soon include more thoughtful conversations about the pressing issues of our time.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his vision for the social network Friday to include new conversations about more “important things like climate change and political discourse”.

But is it time for Zuckerberg and Facebook to listen? Do they have a role to play in fostering dialogue around matters that impact not only the world, but the way we live? The prelude to Zuckerberg’s remarks was in some respects a mild echo of the choice of language and imagery that often lead to controversial public discussions.

“It’s sometimes easy to spend all of our time talking about the small things, but there’s a lot more to life than small things,” Zuckerberg said.

“This is a different kind of community … now Facebook will let us raise up important things like climate change or political discourse.”

The environment was a cause close to the hearts of the founders of the social network.

Zuckerberg’s father came to America from Poland as a boy, according to Zuckerberg, and the entrepreneur said that his parents continued their family’s tradition by taking a child’s group there a few years ago.

What a stark contrast to the typical social media feed which is full of attention-grabbing posts from friends, trends and celebrities. But Facebook’s approach to shaping its audience has long been at odds with that of activist movements.

The social network has long downplayed controversy over its users’ posts as it has focused on the value of individual interactions.

“From a fundamental perspective, we believe a little bit more silence is good. To just break down and be really honest about the conversation and not try to be one thing only and have an opinion all the time,” Zuckerberg said of the company’s approach in a 2017 Q&A for shareholders.

He argued in the past that the problems plaguing the news cycle were being given too much coverage on social media.

The new conversations come as many advocates say Facebook doesn’t appear to be taking responsibility for its role in shaping the way we communicate and share ideas.

“The problem with social media in general is that it is amplifying existing divisions, existing difference, the contrived differences, the fake stories,” wrote Michela Wrong, a professor at Georgetown University and a social media critic.

Facebook has declined to comment on the substance of Zuckerberg’s speech or to explain what new details it might disclose in the next set of advertisements on climate change, politics or other topics.

The social network faces controversy over the influence it may have on public conversations. Its algorithm curates the content to better “connect” users with their friends. The company has faced criticism that this has enabled many posts to spread that are not particularly related to their friends.

But there’s been some evidence that the company has been leaning into conversations about divisive issues.

For instance, following two days of outrage and discussion in June over the posts made by prominent US pastor and Trump supporter Mark DeMoss, Facebook says it has increased the number of “news stories” across the site.

Others, however, aren’t convinced that Facebook would be a fitting platform for those discussions, or that topics surrounding activism are particularly relevant to its wider audience.

In the run-up to Zuckerberg’s speech Friday, one of the pioneers of digital activism said he was unimpressed.

“I don’t understand what Facebook hopes to achieve, or how a climate discussion would fit with its current advertising business model,” said Marshall Kirkpatrick, a prominent creator of the online file-sharing site BitTorrent.

“It’s not clear how climate change, or all the problems that exist, would interest the average Facebook user, aside from alerting them to unlicensed products (which is worth its own criticism),” he added.

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