Siva Vaidhyanathan Explains Why We Shouldn’t Expect Facebook to Fix Itself

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 28, 2018


When news of the consultant firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessing Facebook data to target U.S. and British voters was reported, U.S. lawmakers called CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify, the UK Parliament did the same, Facebook went on the defensive, and many Facebook users contemplated deleting their account.


University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan offers his thoughts on Facebook and the challenges of reining in the social media platform’s impact on public discourse and individuals’ networked connections.


Below are a few excerpts from Professor Vaidhyanathan’s New York Times opinion piece, “Don’t Delete Facebook. Do Something About It.”


Facebook’s problems are not peripheral, not just some rough edges that can be sanded down. Its core functions are to deploy its algorithms to amplify content that generates strong emotional responses among its users, and then convert what it learns about our interests and desires into targeted ads. This is what makes Facebook Facebook. This is also what makes Facebook such an effective vehicle for promoting so much garbage and what makes it the most pervasive personal surveillance system in the world. As long as that’s true, don’t expect Facebook to fix itself.


Hope lies, instead, with our power as citizens. We must demand that legislators and regulators get tougher. They should go after Facebook on antitrust grounds. Facebook is by far the dominant social platform in the United States, with 68 percent of American adults using it, according to the Pew Research Center. That means Facebook can gobble up potential competitors, as it already has with Instagram, and crowd out upstarts in fields such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.


Regulatory interventions have limitations. As long as Facebook is big and rich, its algorithms will determine and distort much of what we read and watch. Our long-term agenda should be to bolster institutions that foster democratic deliberation and the rational pursuit of knowledge. These include scientific organizations, universities, libraries, museums, newspapers and civic organizations. They have all been enfeebled over recent years as our resources and attention have shifted to the tiny addictive devices in our hands.


If we act together as citizens to champion these changes, we have a chance to curb the problems that Facebook has amplified. If we act as disconnected, indignant moral agents, we surrender the only power we have: the power to think and act collectively. We could even use Facebook to mount campaigns to rein in Facebook. It is, after all, a powerful tool for motivation, even if it’s a terrible tool for deliberation.


Read the full article: “Don’t Delete Facebook. Do Something About It.”


Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media Studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press, published in 2017, and The Googlization of Everything -- and Why We Should Worry from the University of California Press, published in 2011. As Director of the Center for Media and Citizenship, Professor Vaidhyanathan oversees production of a television show, a radio program, several podcasts, and the Virginia Quarterly Review magazine. He has also appeared in an episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to discuss early social network services.