Facebook management appear to have taken general comments on social media made by a former executive very personally. They’ve gone on the offensive against former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who has been speaking out against social media as a whole and not specifically the company he once worked for. Facebook defends itself by basically saying that things have changed dramatically since he was there.
Palihapitiya targets social media
Recently, Palihapitiya told attendees at an event at Stanford Graduate School of Business that social media is basically ripping society apart. Then on CNBC‘s Squawk Box on Monday, he expanded on what he said even further, adding that social media is constructing a society that “confuses ‘popularity’ with ‘truth.'”
“You can use money to amplify whatever you believe and get people to believe what is popular is now truthful,” he said on Squawk Box. “What is not popular may not be truthful.”
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Facebook and other social media sites make most of their money on ad sales, and he pointed out something that’s very interesting. In fact, we would argue that Russian propaganda around the 2016 presidential election via ads on social media demonstrates exactly what Palihapitiya was talking about.
Palihapitiya makes a point
In fact, he went on to outline how he or anyone else could use millions of dollars to run campaigns on social media and reach “hundreds of millions of people.” His point is that by making a viewpoint popular by spreading it around, anyone can convince others that it’s also truthful, whether it is or not.
He said it’s possible to do this with anything from vaccines, to gay rights, bathroom laws, or even Roy Moore, the Alabama senator accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers. Anyone who has spent any time on social media must have seen at least one of these topics being argued for or against.
His comments this week were a follow-up to his censure of the dopamine-driven feedback loops that social networks are based on. Users want others to “like” their posts or engage with them, so they’re driven toward popular viewpoints.
Facebook defends itself
Now on Tuesday, Facebook defends itself against Palihapitiya, even though he specifically said that he wasn’t targeting the company he once worked for. His comments apply to all social networks. Interestingly, Facebook defends itself with a statement about how long it’s been since he worked there rather than denying that it exploits human vulnerabilities.
Palihapitiya left Facebook more than six years ago, and in a statement to CNBC, the social media firm said that when he left, they “were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world.” Some might think a statement such as this implies that the company isn’t doing this now, although it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t still doing this.
Facebook also said that it is a “very different company” now than it was when Palihapitiya worked there and that as it has grown, it has realized that its responsibilities have also grown.
“We’ve done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we’re using it to inform our product development,” the company also said.
It’s difficult to see how a statement such as this one offers a firm defense against what Palihapitiya and other former executives have said about social media in general. The basics of what social media is haven’t really changed all that much in the last six years, and what he was commenting on was the social media business model rather than anything Facebook specifically was doing.