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Blaming Facebook is like shooting the messenger

Blaming Facebook is like shooting the messenger

by Alejo Jose G. Sison | June 05, 2018

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Facebook has been, for the past couple of months, everyone’s favorite whipping boy. No less than Russia was said to have meddled in the 2016 US elections, sending targeted ads based on data from gathered from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica. As a result, we now have Trump in the White House. Never mind that being bombarded by ads during the campaign isn’t quite the same as having the freedom to decide on your vote annulled. Don’t even mention the hypothetical of what would have happened had Hillary won.

In any case, despite a slight wiggle in its stock price, Facebook has now recovered positions in the market, after Zuckerberg’s partly tragic, partly comic congressional hearing.  And #Delete# hasn’t really gathered steam among Facebook’s 2 billion plus users.

Which reminds me, what ever happened to Facebook’s chorus of admirers from the Arab Spring some years back? Didn’t they hail Facebook then as the best thing ever that has happened to democracy, helping to topple tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt? I wonder where they are right now.

Before proceeding, full disclosure: I own no Facebook stocks. I opened a Facebook account to keep in touch with family and friends, especially the younger ones. Only later did I realize that it could also serve as my modest little soapbox in the global speakers’ corner. And yeah, ok, Facebook also keeps me entertained during my down-time.

Yet none of this means I’m blind to Facebook’s issues. It was originally meant to measure and compare ‘hotness’ on campus. Together with Google, it now soaks up around two-thirds of the advertising money available. Moreover, incredible horror stories about identity-theft and financial scams have been perpetrated on its platform. And right now, we’re just beginning to realize how addicting it could be, especially for young minds. All told, however, I still think Facebook has contributed to making the world a better place. Much is to be lost, hardly anything to be gained by its blanket rejection, or worse, disappearance.

Why? Because Facebook is just a messenger, which can bear good or bad news. We’re the ones responsible for creating the news, true or fake. Or Facebook is like a mirror we hold up to our faces —all social media indulge our narcissism. Like Snow White’s wicked stepmother, we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like what we see. So it isn’t really logical or fair to pin the blame on an app that simply records and spreads the content we’ve uploaded.

As adults, we should already know by now that nothing comes for free. If we don’t pay for the service, then Facebook must find a way to make its business sustainable, such as by trafficking with our data, for example. But even then, only with data that we have consciously and deliberately broadcast. As of the moment, Facebook cannot read our minds or compel us to provide information we do not wish to make public.

What ought we to do then? How can one live with Facebook without the trouble? Thankfully, there’s an app for that, and it’s called ‘discretion’. The dictionary defines it as “the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offence or revealing confidential information” or “the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation”.

Brilliant! Discretion acts like a mental filter or control for our speech. It consists of knowing what to say, when, where, to whom, how, and why, in accordance with sound reason and good will. The first rule is, of course, to never tell lies. Discretion comes as a close second. There are lots of things no one really needs to know, nor cares about, despite our urge to share or compulsion to vent it out. A large part of discretion has to do with learning to shut up. Such behavior then enables us to exercise and grow in this particular excellence or virtue.

Not too long ago, I heard the story of a brilliant, although perhaps too eager young fellow whose dreams of an Ivy League PhD were shattered when he was denied a US visa. The summer before his senior year, he sort of “interned” at a New York investment bank, having entered the country with an ESTA (electronic system for travel authorization). During the embassy interview, an official asked whether he had previously worked in the US. The student confidently said no, but then the official pulled out several posts from his Facebook page and other social media where he bragged of his experiences working at the Big Apple. This happened to be illegal, and in consequence, the student was put on the blacklist.

This sad outcome certainly was not Facebook’s fault. The student had to learn discretion the hard way.

So next time you post on Facebook and other social media, remember, “We are slaves to our words and masters of our silence.” Now doesn’t that deserve a “like”?

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. He is an editor of the recently published "Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission. 

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