When thinking about the figures who have influenced my life at Columbia, there are few who loom larger than President Bollinger. As president of the University, he makes decisions about how the institution functions and sets the vision of the University. When students have disagreed with decisions that he has made, they have been quick to protest and demand change. However, there is another man who arguably exerts even more control over our lives at college—Mark Zuckerberg. As the CEO of Facebook, he wields power over nearly every aspect of our online social lives.
Facebook’s control over college life begins early at Columbia. Not long after you receive your acceptance letter, you are invited to a Facebook group through which members of the class introduce themselves and can even make some of their first friends at Columbia. Once on campus, the infamous columbia buy sell memes page, which has over 30,000 members, is a popular topic of discussion. However, Facebook’s influence over social life is not limited to these few pages. Facebook is students’ de facto platform for organizing events, sharing life updates, expressing political views, and getting news. In other words, Facebook functions as the online public square of college life––and as a result, Facebook has a tremendous amount of control over our social lives.
Facebook’s power is particularly troubling given the amount of influence an organization can have on our decision-making processes. Through its algorithm that curates our news feed, Facebook controls what we see on its platform. It is also through this algorithm that Facebook has the ability to subtly influence our thought processes and even subtly nudge us toward making certain decisions. These decisions could determine the products we buy, who we make friends with, our views of the world, and everything in between. Though none of these things sound inherently pernicious, Facebook’s ability to influence our online lives has tremendous capacity for abuse.
Recently, Facebook has been plagued by a number of scandals that have revealed how much abuse the organization has allowed to take place on the platform. In 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook allows advertisers to discriminate on the basis of race (an abuse that continues to the present day). One year later, ProPublica reported that Facebook consistently failed to flag comments made by white supremacists calling for violence against minorities, while quickly removing posts made by Black Lives Matter activists and political groups, reporting that “the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In doing so, they serve the business interests of the global company.”
These scandals are only a few of the many abuses that Facebook has allowed to take place on the platform, which raises questions about how these abuses could affect our access to news and events, even in the local Columbia community. For instance, how has Facebook’s algorithm influenced the information we hear about Columbia’s graduate student worker protests? What kinds of commentary did we (or didn’t we) see about the Columbia University College Republicans’ “free speech month"? Why did some students see the "Columbia is Racist!” Facebook event hosted by 24/7 Columbia and No Red Tape in their news feeds while others did not?
When thinking of the control Facebook has and the harm it can cause, I am drawn to a quote from Christopher Wylie, the Canadian programmer at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He stated, “data is the electricity of our new economy, and electricity can be quite dangerous. We enjoy the benefits of electricity, despite the fact that it can literally kill you.” Wylie makes an important point: Facebook and online data sharing are the future of the new economy, yet despite how exciting these new tools may seem, they are not inherently good. They have the ability to cause social evil just as much as they has the ability to cause social good. How we set the rules on platforms like Facebook will dictate which of these aims they are used for.
Mark Zuckerberg has long declared Facebook’s mission to “connect the world.” However, he should admit that by vowing to better connect the world, he is actually implying that he wants Facebook to have a direct hand in influencing the social connections of the people of the world. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to be directly involved in how we live our social lives, he should be aware that there is a tremendous amount of social responsibility attached to this power.
Though in different ways, both Bollinger and Zuckerberg have control over institutions that have tremendous amounts of influence over our lives. An even larger difference lies in how we interact with them in return. We should hold Zuckerberg accountable on the same level that we hold Bollinger accountable and demand change from Facebook. We are the first generation to have grown up using Facebook, and as such we must be the first to call for change on the platform. Scandals around issues such as speech suppression, discrimination, and foreign electoral influence are all phenomena that have been allowed to exist on a site that we use daily, yet responses to these scandals have been slow and change has been lacking.
Facebook is being called to testify in Washington next week, and we must demand that it be held accountable for the abuses that it has allowed on its platform. Further, we should be calling for change on the platform itself. We must push Zuckerberg to take seriously his responsibility as the leader of our online social lives and allow public input and debate on the rules that govern Facebook. Columbia students are famous for leading the charge for change on campus––shouldn’t we be doing the same online?
Robert Godfried is a senior in Columbia College majoring in sociology. Contrary to what his friends may say, he swears he is not a luddite. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Sexy Side of Local Politics runs alternate Thursdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.