The Facebook Dilemma: Choices with Unintended Consequences

Oct 31, 2018

Journalists doing deep dives into global wrongdoing rarely get to release their findings amid a hot-news environment that just happens to amplify the issues in their investigations.

But the recent hand-wringing over how social media posts likely fueled the hate-filled invective of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter and also likely pinpointed the high-profile targets of the pipe bomb suspect created a meaningful landing pad for FRONTLINE's latest report, “The Facebook Dilemma,” which aired on October 29 and 30.

FRONTLINE producers Jim Jacoby and Anya Bourg dispassionately chronicled how Facebook’s choices in scaling up its business had significant unintended consequences. Key is how a tech company that ostensibly launched to do good ended up becoming what the report called a “surveillance machine” that enabled bad actors to weaponize fake information, hyperpartisan Facebook pages and user data mining for political ends.

“The Facebook Dilemma” tracked how, in the Ukraine, Egypt, the United States and elsewhere, Facebook has become a global venue for deliberate misinformation intended to polarize existing divisions, incite uprisings and influence elections.

And, as the chosen and very idealistic Facebook spokespeople lamented, again and again, the company was too slow – and possibly unable or unwilling – to halt the misconduct or even understand the massive amount of influence it was having on world events.

Comments from those studying or experiencing the impact are alarming.

“This is an information ecosystem that just turns democracy upside down,” said one interviewee.

Said another: “This company was way over its head in terms of its responsibilities.”

“The Facebook Dilemma” aligns in many ways with the classic Innovator's Dilemma, but Facebook is increasingly acting like the company to be disrupted, not the disruptive innovator: Choices made to grow the business dictated how resources would be deployed (Facebook chose to grow revenue vs. protecting privacy). Decisions to scale operations often came at the expense of early users. And disruptive innovators often disrupt more than the companies that they displace once they mature.

In Facebook’s case, that might well be democracy itself.

All in all, FRONTLINE deserves a pat on the back for an excellent effort in explanatory journalism.


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