What is the role and purpose of Facebook?
This question has been stewing in my mind the past few days because of a strange encounter with a friend on the social media site: after this friend shared a post outlining an argument, I commented with a few questions, asking for clarification. It seemed to use an example which worked against the argument itself, and I pointed out the fallacy and asked for an explanation. I was immediately met with a curt response from a friend who did not explain the example and included some ALL CAP words. The person who shared the post only commented with the request to not comment on her posts on the issue. When I tried clicking back on the post, I met Facebook’s censorship—a page stating that the post was no longer available.
This encounter is not an infrequent one. I’ve seen many people, most recently, post warnings on their pages stating that they will unfriend people who disagree with them on certain issues. They are unable, or unwilling, to support their opinions or engage in discussion, yet they still share their opinions. This begs the question of the role of social media: If social media is supposed to mimic the real world, shouldn’t sharing posts and opinions encourage thoughtful discussion and debate?
Let’s take a look at what Facebook states of its purpose. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, states in a letter describing the purpose and mission of Facebook that its aim is “to make the world more open and connected.” He argues that with increased access to the internet, people are able to engage with other perspectives and engage in thoughtful discussion: “Today, our society has reached another tipping point. We live at a moment when the majority of people in the world have access to the internet or mobile phones — the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they’re thinking, feeling and doing with whomever they want.” Like any conversation with friends, we have the capability to understand different perspectives. Doing so on social media widens the scope of these discussions because they aren’t limited to locational boundaries.
But is Zuckerberg’s position on Facebook reality? Is it a place to hold discussions on different topics, offering different perspectives on things?
Imagine you are in a room full of your friends. You had recently gone on vacation, and wanted to show them pictures, so you pass around a photobook. Several of your friends throughout the day come up to you and talk to you about the pictures, asking you questions about certain things and telling you what they thought of some of the shots. Facebook generally seems to have the same function and purpose as this when it comes to sharing vacation photos. People comment on the photos online instead of in-person. But what about the other things people share?
Now imagine you are in the same room with your friends and instead of bringing up your vacation photos, you start talking politics. You state an opinion, and those who disagree voice why and how they think you are wrong. Others who agree with you bring up different perspectives and additional arguments. And though you may not agree in the end, it was good to discuss the differing sides of these issues. This, at least in terms of Zuckerberg’s stated vision of exposing people to different perspectives, is how Facebook should operate, right? Why is this peaceful discussion on politics so hard to imagine?
If Facebook mimics reality, then the above described situation, in America at least, is only just that—a situation described by me, taken from thin air and written down on a Word document. It’s not real. The reality in which we live is that most people are unable to have thoughtful, in-person discussions about important things. Indeed, Facebook does seem to mimic reality now. If you do not agree with certain people, they yell in your face and don’t let you talk, or they simply just ignore you and refrain from addressing the issue entirely.
So, what are we to make of this? This question reminds me of the ageless question of art: does art mimic reality, or vice versa? How is art shaped by reality, and how is reality shaped by art? The same questions can be asked of Facebook, and other social media outlets. Though people share their realities on social media and try to represent a part of them in virtual reality, they are also shaped by virtual reality itself. The virtual world shapes and molds the physical world.
If virtual reality has influence on reality itself, how should we act on social media? Is there a problem in people being unable to discuss important things in life, and can this be fixed by trying to hold discussions online?
Zuckerberg’s stated purpose of Facebook highlights the irony of my encounter with Facebook censorship. In light of Facebook’s recent use of censorship on the site (specifically, Facebook, Google, and Youtube’s targeting of conservative sites such as Liveaction and PragerU, it’s 2016 election search results meddling, and their fact checking of only conservative posts), his attempts to counter conservative viewpoints undermines his stated mission.
If Facebook is supposed to mimic reality, what role does Facebook censorship play in the conversation? It only hides people from the opinions of others, sheltering them from reality. It doesn’t allow people to engage in contrary opinions and justly think through them, either challenging their original opinions or bolstering them. Facebook censorship seems only to perpetuate the reality in which we live—where disagreement is met with hate and racist labeling, and not discussion.
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches 5th grade English and History as well as 11th grade Spanish III at a Great Hearts Academy in Glendale, AZ. In addition to teaching, she coaches JV girls basketball and is a writing tutor for The Classical Historian Online Academy. Jessica recently played basketball professionally in Tarragona, Spain, where she taught English ESL and tutored Classical Historian writing students. In 2018, she received her Bachelor's degree in English and Spanish from Hillsdale College, MI.