What would our world without Facebook look like? How the platform has shaped life in Scotland for the better - and worse
Facebook has grown arms and legs since the mid-2000s, spreading itself across the internet as the company acquired Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus and outgrew its origins as a place purely to ‘poke’ friends, play games and stay constantly tapped into ‘what’s happening’ with colleagues and family.
But where Facebook was once pledged as creating a ‘global village’ of humans bonded together in a digital manifestation of our utmost desire for connection, it is now being accused of tearing the world apart.
When Facebook and the platforms now coalesced under new company name, ‘Meta’, suffered a six-hour outage on 4 October, it came in the wake of a new storm for the company as whistleblower Frances Haugen emerged from the shadows of the Silicon Valley giant to share the extent of Facebook’s power over our daily lives, emotions and politics.
Haugen’s name quickly hit headlines across the world, remaining at the heart of the news cycle as grim details of leaked Facebook documents were poured over by the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times and The Verge.
Regulators worldwide are now under more pressure than ever to take action – with cross party MPs in the House of Commons grilling Facebook’s global safety chief on the failures to stamp out disinformation and tweak algorithms revealed to be known by the company to be making teens feel worse on Instagram.
But despite overwhelming criticism of the company, Dr Ben Marder, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh, says he can “empathise” with Facebook.
“They're dealing with some serious, complex social trade-offs,” Dr Marder says.
"On the one hand you've got free speech and free speech advocates, and on the other you've got people that want to basically block everything out."
“Whichever way you go you're going to get people criticising you,” he adds, “so they're in an impossible situation.”
For some, like 42-year-old recovering addict Paul Boggie from Edinburgh, life without Facebook and social media platforms is simply unimaginable.
Now in his 17th year of recovery from heroin addiction, Paul found himself writing a book about his recovery journey when the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020 – self-publishing ‘From Heroin to Hero’ as a detailed insight into his mental health and experiences as an addict some months later.
Seeing drug and alcohol use soar in lockdown as addiction intensified for those cut off from public services and vital healthcare, Paul created an author page on Facebook and began to hold live videos where he would discuss his book and journey through addiction and into recovery.
Public comments and feedback left on his videos soon grew into thousands of direct messages on Facebook, as family and friends of people struggling with addiction got in touch with Paul alongside those dealing with addiction.
“When I first started doing it it was mainly to help current addicts,” he says.
"What I found on social media was just as many family members of addicts would message me saying ‘Paul, I lost my son two years ago’ or ‘my daughter is addicted to heroin’ but that by buying my book and reading they could understand what their son was going through or understand a little bit more about their daughter's mindset.”
Paul continues: "I’m reaching people that I'm never likely to meet because they're all across the world, and that's another huge benefit.
"I'm Scottish and all the profits from my book go toward ending homelessness in Scotland but I have lots of people in Australia and America with addiction problems contact me on a daily basis.
"There’s no way I would be able to help them and do that without social media.”
But the ease with which content, ideas and businesses can be shared across the world on Facebook has its downsides.
The platform’s inaction on the rise of social media scam adverts was revealed by Which? in April, with the British consumer watchdog finding that Facebook had failed to remove 26 per cent of scam adverts reported.
It also found that of those who said they fell victim to a scam through adverts on search engines or social media, a quarter identified falling for it on Facebook.
For Jude McCorry, chief executive officer of the Scottish Business Resilience Centre (SBRC), the platform’s claims to be a champion of small businesses is “very, very different” to reality, with small Scottish local businesses falling victim to scams on Facebook allegedly left without Facebook support.
In the last six months, McCorry says the SBRC has seen five or six local businesses in Scotland fall victim to scams after posting a ‘like and share’ competition or similar content on the platform, with their websites cloned and content duplicated in order to scam their customers.
“If something goes wrong, there is nobody at Facebook to help them,” McCorry says.
"Facebook actually do not care about businesses at all.”
Responding to the SBRC’s claims, a Meta spokesperson said: “Millions of small businesses use our platforms to grow and create jobs and we’re committed to helping them.
“This includes a dedicated small business support channel available seven days a week through www.facebook.com/business/help. We are sorry to hear about the issues some small businesses have faced and we will be in contact with the SBRC to discuss this further.”
The company spokesperson continued: “We are dedicating significant resources to tackle the industry-wide issue of online scams by working to detect scam ads on our apps, block advertisers and, in some cases, take them to court.
"While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to invest in new technologies and methods to protect our users from this kind of content.
“We have also donated £3 million to Citizens Advice to deliver a UK Scam Action Programme to both raise awareness of online scams and help victims.”
The tale of having a local business and its hard-earned customer base vanish in a flash once falling victim to a scam on Facebook and left to pick up the pieces is felt in part by those who have seen loved ones fall down the cavernous rabbit hole of Covid conspiracy theories and misinformation that yawned during the pandemic.
One young woman living in Glasgow, who wished to remain anonymous, is still reeling from the “heartbreaking” deterioration of her relationship with her mum, with their bond buckling under the weight of the coronavirus and vaccine misinformation taking hold on the platform since the pandemic began.
"I think it just happened by her taking what she read on Facebook as fact and then not checking elsewhere, not googling or reading up on what she'd read, just taking the posts and comments as true,” she says.
“She just believed whoever online and was convinced the world/government was against her and her views.”
Attempts to warn her mum about the uncertainty of some information and posts on the platform led to nothing, causing only “huge arguments over the phone, often ending with one of us hanging up, not talking for weeks and months at a time”.
She continues: “Our relationship is still broken now and we barely talk.
"It's heartbreaking honestly. I'm sure over time it will heal but it’s just going to take a long time, I think.”
As John Nicolson MP and cross party representatives on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee scrutinise the UK Government’s draft Online Safety Bill and hear from social media executives and experts about its effectiveness in curtailing online harm, the SNP Shadow Culture Secretary says that while the future of Facebook is uncertain, we can be certain that it’s “not going anywhere”.
"It’s here to stay, isn’t it? Ultimately it isn’t a question – there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s like lamenting the internet,” Nicolson, MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, says.
"The question is what we can do to make sure that Facebook fulfils its obligations and keeps children safe.”
As a Scottish politician required to maintain a Facebook page to keep in touch with constituents and the public, Nicolson says: “I try always to answer people until it becomes clear they're just trolling.
“But the number of people that fall into that category in my experience as an MP at the moment is considerable - I think I've had maybe half a dozen that I've had to permanently block from my Facebook MP page.”
The MP discussed the current state of the platform with Haugen on Monday, at one point asking her if she believed Facebook was “evil” and at another, explained how he came to understand the inconsistency in enforcement of social media content moderation guidelines after receiving homophobic abuse on Twitter.
When he was called a “greasy bender” on Twitter, Nicolson did as any seasoned user of the social media app would in reporting the content – only to be informed that it did not meet the platform’s community standards for offensive material.
“I said to Twitter, ‘I'm writing to you with chapter and verse of your community standards that says homophobic language is unacceptable and you're writing back saying that it's acceptable. I'm literally showing you the your own community safeguard guidelines, why are you denying them?’”
"Well, partly it was an error and, to be generous, I think it possibly was some moderator in California had no idea what what a ‘bender’ was – but they have as much access to Google as I do.
“So yes, the verification is very, very poor.”
But what of Facebook’s future?
The young woman whose relationship with her mum has been irrevocably shaped by the platform’s failure to catch up with Covid disinformation before it was too late reflects the views of many when she says that regulation of Facebook has never been so urgently needed.
"I loved Facebook when it started off,” she says, “it's a great resource for connection, but it needs to change if it's going to survive.
“The information needs to be regulated and people and Groups need to be monitored in some way – it’s gotten out of hand and isn’t good for humanity in the way it is right now.”
What we’ve learned from the 'Facebook Papers' and whistleblower Frances Haugen so far
“Anger and hate is best way to grow on Facebook,” Frances Haugen told DCMS Select Committee MPs in Westminster on Monday, in a statement profoundly summing up the range of redacted, leaked documents she shared with a ‘Consortium’ of select US and UK news titles.
Published as the ‘Facebook Papers’, journalists at the Associated Press, Reuters, Washington Post, New York Times, The Verge and more have revealed the extent of the company’s awareness of its power, harm and influence on global societies and their politics.
October has seen scrutiny of Meta, formerly Facebook, come to a head after internal documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal were published in ‘The Facebook Files’, disclosing the company was made aware of its harm to teenagers on Instagram by its own researchers.
Internal researchers carried out a survey in 2020 which found that 32 per cent of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made it worse.
The survey also found that of those feeling suicidal, six per cent of US teenagers and 13 per cent of UK teenagers surveyed could trace their desire to end their life to Instagram.
In response, Instagram said the Journal’s report was based on “a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light” but said the research “demonstrates our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with”.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that despite Facebook’s claims to be removing “96.7 per cent of all the hate speech it took action on during the first three months of this year”, documents suggested that the company was only removing five per cent or less of hate speech through AI moderation.
"Any system where the solution is AI is a system that’s going to fail," Haugen said to MPs on Monday.
"We need to focus on making the system slow down, making it human scale."
"One of the things I was very struck by is being told by witnesses this week the English language is the safest that Facebook gets,” says John Nicolson, “and Facebook's pretty bad in English.
“For the vast majority of languages, Facebook has no moderation of any kind at all.”
Another document seen by Bloomberg and the Facebook Papers ‘consortium’ revealed that Facebook spent nearly 60 per cent of hate-speech training time on just seven languages, with English representing a quarter.
But countries like India and those in the Global South have been left without the moderation and oversight seen in Western societies.
The Associated Press reported one redacted Facebook document revealed the company's awareness of users linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist party, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, created multiple Facebook accounts to boost the spread of Islamophobic content.
"Much of this content was “never flagged or actioned,” the research found, because Facebook lacked moderators and automated filters with knowledge of Hindi and Bengali,” the AP report states.
Into the metaverse: Facebook's vivid plans for a virtual reality future, explained
After it was first reported by US tech publication The Verge last week that Facebook would be changing as we knew it with a rebrand of its company name, Big Tech CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally revealed on Thursday at the company’s annual Connect product showcase that Facebook’s parent company is now named ‘Meta’.
The snappy new title is an unambiguous ode to the company’s future direction which will see it hurtle toward a “new North Star” in the form of the metaverse.
“We are going to be metaverse first, not Facebook first,” said Zuckerberg, outlining his grand, if not slightly alarming, vision for an “embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.”
The Facebook founder went on to tell Connect viewers: "We'll be able to feel present - like we're right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.
"We will be able to express ourselves in new joyful completely immersive ways, and that's going to unlock a lot of amazing new experiences.”
Between flashes of hyper-animated avatars running legless through a sprawling metaverse, cutesy, neon cyber pets hopping through virtual forests, and a slew of shiny Augmented Reality (AR) objects and NFTs in Thursday night’s showcase were glimpses the company will once again seek to reshape our online and offline realities.
In its simplest definition, a metaverse is a simulated, virtual reality world in which humans can interact with each other freely in a digital, computer-generated universe – as seen in virtual reality video game Second Life and in science fiction novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
But the company’s pursuit of its own, closed metaverse projects a more ambitious, far-reaching and competitive virtual reality than those which have preceded it, with the Meta metaverse set to be harnessed by the company’s existing base of Virtual Reality (VR) hardware products such as headsets.
The company acquired VR firm Oculus in 2014 and has increasingly looked to integrate Oculus products with Facebook accounts and services in the years since.
Thursday’s product announcement saw the company reveal that Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is in development for the Oculus Quest 2 headset – which will be renamed to ‘Meta Quest 2’ along as Oculus branding is phased out from early next year.
Dr Victoria Esteves, Lecturer in Creative Industries at the University of Stirling, says Facebook’s rebrand “is an attempt to distance themselves from the multiple (including recent) controversies that have surrounded it.
"It’s also important to note that Facebook (the app) will keep its name – it’s the parent company that will be rebranding, which gives them the ability to incorporate new products under the ‘Meta’ universe without a direct association with the Facebook brand; whilst also retaining the Facebook brand for those who are its target userbase."
Dr Esteves added: “Technology changes very fast but culture is very slow to catch up, which means things won’t change at the flip of a switch or at an ‘unveiling’.
"We have to be careful of claiming a future where we will all be connected through VR – some of us are still having a hard time getting stable wifi.”
Nick Clegg, former UK Deputy Prime Minister and Meta vice president of global affairs and communications, echoed this in conversation with Zuckerberg at Connect 2021.
“In the past, the speed that new technologies have emerged sometimes left policy makers and regulators playing catch up,” Clegg said on Thursday.
“So on the one hand, companies get ahead of charging ahead too quickly and on the other, tech people feel that progress can’t afford to wait for the slower pace of regulation.
“And I really think that it doesn't have to be the case this time round because we have years until the kind of metaverse we imagine is fully realised.”
Why are young people in Scotland and beyond shunning Facebook?
As TikTok emerged as a rival to Facebook’s dominance in the social media market, hitting one million viewers a month worldwide in late September, the company has realised that while Instagram still enchants younger users – particularly Gen Z users born between 1997 and 2012 – its primary platform fails to capture the attention of today’s teens.
Zuckerberg himself told Facebook investors on its third quarter earnings call on Monday that "over the last decade as the audience that uses our apps has expanded so much, and we focus on serving everyone, our services have gotten dialed to be the best for the most people who use them rather than specifically for young adults."
The company has since made inconspicuous efforts to capture the market cornered by TikTok and SnapChat with the creation of Reels on Instagram and Stories on Facebook and Instagram.
“Reels is a TikTok rip-off and Stories is a Snapchat rip-off,” says Dr Marder, adding: “I think young people will never use Facebook.”
"The platform doesn’t appeal to younger users because it has been associated with older forms of interaction that are now seen as outdated or cringey; as well as an older userbase with social, cultural and political beliefs that are often at odds with those of younger users,” says Dr Esteves.
But they add that it isn’t so much that short videos are wildly innovative – short videos have been in circulation through Instagram, Facebook, and even Vine (which was the original short video platform), it is the culture of the content and forms of communication behind these videos that gains traction.
"You can be a part of ‘Scottish TikTok’, ‘Alt Tiktok’ or ‘Plant TikTok’ without being confined to a closed community page; it allows for a much more nuanced interaction of community formation, culture development, and interaction.”
As the world's first social media platform, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Facebook has acquired a dated, ‘boomer’ image for young people in Scotland and beyond – with TikTok’s algorithm catering to a more diverse range of content and seemingly presenting the possibility for anyone or anything to go viral.
But for Dr Marder, this is not the full story.
“Facebook is uncool,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not great - it still has 3.6 billion users, that’s basically like half the planet.”
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