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The lasting legacy of Mark Zuckerberg

I have had the idea of revisiting Edward Kienholz’ Five Car Stud for years. I took the 50th anniversary of this iconic work — it was first shown at Harald Szeemann’s legendary documenta 5 in 1972 — to raise the question: where do we stand now, 50 years later with respect to racist hate crimes?
Has anything changed?

I’ve researched the root causes of racism extensively, and have come to the conclusion that they have not changed much.

But what did fundamentally change since then are the paths and, more importantly, the catalysts to radicalization. Which has brought my attention to the pivotal role social media play on this societal battlefield.

Mark Zuckerberg has consistently steered his company based on two principles: aggressive growth and free speech. The latter has amounted to a stubborn refusal to engage in content moderation to avert harm to people at an early but crucial stage.

This absence of content moderation for many years has done irreparable harm across the globe. Below I will list a number of global issues gravely exacerbated by facebook and its other products Instagram and WhatsApp.

But as if that was not already enough, facebook has for years rewarded radicalization through their algorithms on multiple levels. A post that stirs anger will get more engagement than a positive sentiment. Thus, facebook profiles that generate more user traffic through anger-fueled content become more attractive for advertisers which in turn increases revenue for facebook.
But this cascading scheme didn’t stop there. Through facebook’s auto-generated recommendations users got steered towards radicalization without their own action. This explains in part how large parts of the Republican Party were pushed towards extremist views.
The machinations are detailed in the article ‘Carol’s Journey’: What Facebook knew about how it radicalized users.

It tells the story of how a researcher at facebook created a profile of a fictitious “test user” named Carol, who had “indicated an interest in politics, parenting and Christianity and followed a few of her favorite brands, including Fox News and then-President Donald Trump.
Though Smith had never expressed interest in conspiracy theories, in just two days Facebook was recommending she join groups dedicated to QAnon, a sprawling and baseless conspiracy theory and movement that claimed Trump was secretly saving the world from a cabal of pedophiles and Satanists.[…] Within one week, Smith’s feed was full of groups and pages that had violated Facebook’s own rules, including those against hate speech and disinformation.”

This article sums up in a nutshell how Facebook is fanning the flames of hate speech not only in the US, but worldwide.

Here is some more information, including sources, on the texts that I display in my video installation “Five Car Stud 2.0: Coordinated inauthentic Behavior”:

USA

For years, Facebook allowed white supremacists on its platforms and even accelerated their expansion through its algorithms, all the while profiting from their activities.

According to an article in the Guardian, “it was used extensively in organizing of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2019, where white nationalists and neo-Nazis violently marched. Militarized groups including Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois and militia groups all organized, promoted and grew their ranks on Facebook. In 2020 officials arrested men who had planned a violent kidnapping of the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, on Facebook. A 17-year-old in Illinois shot three people, killing two, in a protest organized on Facebook.”

But despite efforts by Facebook to curb the spread of insurrectionist groups, “the Stop the Steal groups that emerged to cast doubt on the results of the election and ultimately led to the 6 January violent insurrection amassed hundreds of thousands of followers – all while Facebook’s algorithmic recommendations of political groups were paused”, according to the Guardian.

“Created to search for posts violating rules on hate speech and violence, Facebook’s own automation found with almost 90% certainty that one particular post from Trump broke the company’s regulations.”, according to an article in Newsweek. 

That infamous post, ““when the looting starts the shooting starts!”  appeared 3 days after the murder of George Floyd. During the ensuing riots, Zuckerberg has made the final decision in allowing Trump’s violence-inciting post to stay up on facebook, despite objections from thousands of employees.

GERMANY

A study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Warwick found that in Germany, “anti-refugee hate crimes increase in areas with higher Facebook usage.” After looking at periods when Facebook or the internet was down, the researchers found that anti-refugee crimes dropped.

Facebook can serve as a “trigger factor” for people potentially prone to committing hate crimes. “This can push some of these perpetrators over the edge to go carry out such crimes,” one of the researches said.

The German ultra-right-wing party AFD has more than twice as many facebook likes than any other political party in Germany.

In an interview with DW, Marcus Schmidt, the press officer for the AfD parliamentary group, admits that: “Without Facebook, I don’t believe that the AfD could have become successful so quickly.”

Facebook followers of German parties in May 2022:

AFD: 514k facebook
Die Linke (the Left): 244k facebook
CSU 211k
CDU 196k
SPD 194k
NPD 144
FDP 151
Grüne (Green Party) 85k

MYANMAR

Facebook’s negligence facilitated the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar after its algorithms amplified hate speech and the platform failed to take down inflammatory posts, according to legal action launched in the US and the UK. 

A class action complaint lodged with the northern district court in San Francisco says Facebook was “willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in south-east Asia.”

It adds: “In the end, there was so little for Facebook to gain from its continued presence in Burma, and the consequences for the Rohingya people could not have been more dire. Yet, in the face of this knowledge, and possessing the tools to stop it, it simply kept marching forward.”

A letter submitted by lawyers to Facebook’s UK office on Monday says clients and their family members have been subjected to acts of “serious violence, murder and/or other grave human rights abuses” as part of a campaign of genocide conducted by the ruling regime and civilian extremists in Myanmar.

Sources:

The Guardian: Rohingya sue Facebook for $150bn over Myanmar genocide
BBC: Rohingya sue Facebook for $150bn over Myanmar hate speech

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Facebook, now rebranded as Meta, has been under a lot of pressure to make changes to their policies. They did change their algorithms and have invested substantial amounts of resources to curb hate speech. 

But this is too little, too late. It is not consistent and it doesn’t even come close to getting a handle on the problem.

Meanwhile, it appears that Zuckerberg’s mind is lost in the Metaverse. In his Metaverse announcement he states that” The last few years have been humbling for me and our company in a lot of ways.[…] One of the main lessons that I’ve learned is that building products isn’t enough. We also need to help build ecosystems so that millions of people can have a stake in the future, can be rewarded for their work and benefit as the tide rises. Not just as consumers, but as creators and developers.” 

That’s all fine. 

But Apparently he is not humbled by the death and destruction his personal decisions have caused around the world. 

What I am humbled by is the incredible courage of whistleblowers like Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang, who took a great risk to come forward with their revelations of facebook’s abysmal handling of the global crisis it created. The world owes infinite gratitude to them.

Henrik Langsdorf, June 2022

Full disclosure: I still use Instagram and WhatsApp daily. Facebook as little as possible. To those who might ask why I don’t boycott Meta and its products: if all the people who speak out against the ills of our society and our planet leave Meta, the field will be left to those, who are either indifferent to those issues or intent on making them worse. 


This article will be updated with additional links about the nefarious role Facebook has played around the globe.