Facebook and the End of Thought

One of the more pervasive stories on the Internet over the past few weeks involves Facebook Messenger, a seemingly innocuous smartphone “app” – to old-timers like me, it’s an application, but we’ll go with the current lingo.

Surveys done by Facebook and other technology vendors have revealed that most smartphone users don’t like all-in-one apps, preferring separate apps that do one thing well, so they decided some time ago to take the most popular functions of Facebook and break them out as separate apps. Messaging apps are among the most popular on smartphones, so Facebook created a separate app for that purpose, and made it known some time ago that it would be shutting down that feature in the Facebook mobile app.

So why is this a story?

Users who didn’t already have Facebook Messenger installed began receiving notices that the messaging function in their main Facebook app would cease to work in a matter of weeks, and they would have to download the separate Messenger app in order to continue using that feature.

Subsequently, a alleged ‘technology writer’ – I won’t name him or link to his article because I think he was irresponsible in his reporting - penned a sensational article for the Huffington Post about the app. In it, he declared that Facebook Messenger requested permissions which would allow it to use your smartphone’s microphone and camera without your consent, and that its other permission requests were excessively invasive of your privacy.

The article went viral, local news outlets began broadcasting the story and, before you know it, people were describing Facebook Messenger in terms one would normally reserve for Skynet and Judgment Day. If the analogy escapes you, just ask one of your sci-fi loving friends!

The reaction bordered on paranoia, and seemingly rational people became overheated conspiracy theorists based on misleading information. I tried to correct the misinformation whenever a friend posted one of these screeds, but they were too numerous, and I eventually gave up.

The gist of what I tried to tell folks is that:

  1. Facebook Messenger, like any other messaging app, needs access to the microphone and camera for creating audio, photo and video messages, and it doesn’t turn those features on unless you ask for them.
  2. The permissions Facebook Messenger requests are standard permissions for the smartphone’s operating system, and are common to all apps you install on your phone.
  3. If Facebook Messenger is the bane to privacy the doomsayers claim, then we may as well throw out our smartphones, because every communications app we use is equally ‘invasive’.

Facebook is trying to quell the rumors, but a lot of damage has already been done. An analytics-tracking site for mobile apps collected the ratings for Facebook Messenger from various app stores, and Messenger garnered a dismal 1.2-star rating over the past month, even though it’s also one of the most downloaded free apps in the world. The results may be skewed because anyone, including people who don’t use the app, can comment, and complainers are always more likely to vent than satisfied customers are to praise, but it is one reflection of public sentiment on the issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have used Facebook Messenger for more than a year, and I like being able to message my friends without opening the mobile Facebook app. I find the dedicated app easy to use, quick and convenient when I want to reach someone and I don’t have their email address or phone number, but they are in my Facebook network.

There are other viable reasons for users to reject the app. Some don’t want more than one Facebook app on their phones, others don’t like being forced to use it, many have a preferred messaging app and don’t need or want another, or they’ve taken issue with Facebook in the past for its sometimes cavalier and uneven actions in the area of privacy.

That last point may be at the heart of the overreaction to Messenger, because Google issued its messaging app, Google Hangouts, over a year ago, consolidating several of its messaging features, including one from Google+, the “other” social network, into one mobile app, and shutting down its other messaging properties. Outside of the technology press, however, it didn’t register even as a whisper in the larger social “mediasphere” or the press.

Messenger is not the only problem Facebook has had recently with ill-informed users, however.

The company is experimenting with a tag that would mark articles from known satire sites so Facebook users would know the articles are essentially fake. If you are politically and socially engaged, and your Facebook news feed reflects that, you’ve certainly come across linked articles which report outrageous statements or actions by certain public figures or institutions, only to read the small print in the “About” section of the site and discover it writes ‘satire’. The most well-known online satire site, The Onion, has been at this game for a long time, and they’re quite good at it, and quite funny.

Some of the newcomers, however, aren’t at all funny. In fact, they’re often mean-spirited and dangerous, because they appeal to the worst in people and stir outrage when we have a more than ample supply of it these days. They exploit people’s preconceived notions about a person or organization, manipulate them with an ridiculous claim disguised as news, and then sit back and howl derisively as people spin out of control. I think that’s despicable behavior.

I feel compelled at this point to ask you, gentle reader, to refrain from using this description to tar your least favorite news outlet. You may think a particular cable news network or talk radio host fits the bill, but there is a legitimate place in public discourse for dissenting opinions, and the fact some news items receive a greater emphasis from one side than another means that, collectively and ultimately, all the information is being put out there for us to evaluate and reach our own conclusions.

Deliberately deceptive reporting with the intent to trick people into bouts of apoplexy, however, is juvenile. It resembles a propaganda tactic used to great effect in the former Soviet Union, and which is prevalent in Russian news broadcasts even today. We in the intelligence community during the Cold War called it Disinformatzia.

What worries some people about the satire tag is that Facebook feels compelled to tag such articles in the first place. Setting aside the questions of what sites get tagged, how they are discovered, or the possibility of legitimate news and opinion sites being arbitrarily slapped with the tag because they were reported by angry or malicious readers, why are we looking to Facebook to do what we should be doing ourselves, which is thinking critically about what we read?

It seems that news has entered the ‘Twitter zone’, where everything has to be reported instantly, and in brief, attention-grabbing phrases, or it loses its shelf life, and the result is utter absurdity.

Look at your Facebook news feed; how many times do you see the word “breaking” in all capital letters leading the headline, even if the information presented is not immediate or even timely?

How many times have we read reports about celebrity deaths and responded en masse to them, only to discover the celebrity is either not dead or died years ago?

How many times have you clicked on a link which teased, “You won’t believe what happens next!” or “What happens next will shock you!”, or “Famous Person A destroys Famous Person B!”, only to conclude it was somewhat less dramatic than portrayed? Incidentally, there’s a very descriptive word for that: ‘clickbait’.

How many people still cling to their initial feelings of outrage over a deceptive news item even after it’s been exposed as fake?

Circling back to the brouhaha over Facebook Messenger, you see breathless headlines, the normal being misrepresented as exceptional, facts that are less titillating than the screaming banner which leads them, and a stubborn refusal to let go of one’s initial conclusions even when presented with the facts.

Speaking about the Facebook Messenger fracas, a consultant stated, “What this hubbub really shows is how easy it is to stir up the villagers into a torch-lit mob with a single poorly thought out piece."

That is a wise statement with implications beyond this technology tempest in a teapot. It seems to reflect our approach to news these days – we want it fast, we want it scandalous, and we want it brief. Studies already show that most people never finish an online article, and in my role overseeing online education for Liberty University’s Helms School of Government, we must account for the brief attention span of our students when developing video content for our courses. Lest you think this is an issue primary for Millennials, the average age of an online learner is in the mid-30s.

It seems that reading comprehension, research, and critical thinking are relics of the past, and while the Internet has opened up the world’s cumulative knowledge to more people than at any time in our history, I sometimes wonder if it’s too much for us to handle and, as a result, we retreat to what is familiar and undemanding of us in terms of our time and our faculties.

Instead of relying on external actors like Facebook to do our thinking for us, perhaps we should take control of the information which floods our electronic timelines, feeds and inboxes. Allow me to share with you some of my approaches to culling through information to find that which illuminates rather than inflames.

Learn which sources to trust and limit yourself to them. I have a select few sites that I depend on for thoughtful analysis and opinion, and I find that they use sound sources and links to other quality sites, adding to my digital warehouse of substantive information.

Find good news aggregators and use them as a starting point for deeper analysis. There are many good sites and apps that collect and display news from a variety of sources, and you can tailor them to provide all the news which interests you in one place. I use a site called Netvibes which I’ve constructed to gather general news, weather and sports, social media feeds, commentaries, and technology news in one place. I also use Flipboard on my smartphone. From those sites and apps, I can go deeper if I find something that interests me, and I can do it on my own schedule and at my own pace.

Remind yourself that if a headline is too outrageous to be true, it probably is.  If you read where a public figure you hold in poor regard said or did something that validates your worst beliefs about them, then it’s probably a lie. When I see something like that, or any sensational headline, I check it against credible news sources, and I check the site’s “About” section or its information banner to make sure it’s not satire. I try not to share anything that I’ve not validated through other sources and, if I slip up and post something erroneous or incomplete, and I subsequently discover my error – or if it’s pointed out to me! - I will post a correction and an apology.

Read all the way through, or save it for later reading. If I come across an interesting yet lengthy article, if I have time to read it then, I do so, but if not, I save it for later. I use Pocket on my computer and smartphone to store articles for later, and I also have Evernote for similar purposes. Even Facebook now offers a “save” feature so you can read articles later.

Focus your mind on nobler things. I recall from my time on active duty a fellow intelligence officer who revealed to us that she avoided the evening news altogether, and instead spent her time reading good books and taking in only positive information. We ridiculed her at the time, declaring that it was our duty as intelligence officers to be constantly informed of the evil going on in the world, but she said she didn’t need to watch or read about it to know it’s there, and that if you relied solely on the news, you wouldn’t know there was anything good about life.

As I’ve grown older, however, and as my faith, which was essentially non-existent in my life at the time, grows, I have come to see the wisdom in her approach. One can immerse themselves in bad news to the point of despair, and some of us allow our emotions to be driven over the brink by political and social hyperbole.

One of the reasons we are so drawn to sensationalized links is because we want our biases to be confirmed, our enemies exposed, and our emotions stirred. That’s human nature – the old slogan “If it bleeds, it leads”, used often to describe the news industry’s apparent fixation on what psychologist Deborah Serani calls “fear-based media”, rings true in social media as well. Serani writes:

News is a money making industry. One that doesn't always make the goal to report the facts accurately. Gone are the days of tuning in to be informed straightforwardly about local and national issues. In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health.

Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. Being glued to the television, reading the paper or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares - but it also raises the probability of depression relapse. In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today's television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It's no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it's to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

I still believe that awareness of current events is an obligation of responsible citizenship. An informed people are essential to a constitutional republic. Otherwise, the elites would run roughshod over us while we go about our daily lives, unaware of their manipulation. 1 Thessalonians 5:6 tells us, “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.” Clarity of mind is a common theme in both the Old and New Testament, and God demands it of us so we will not be deceived.

I lament how uninformed and uncritical we are about what is happening in the world. When humor broadcasts like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver are cited in polls as reliable news sources by the general public, I shudder for our nation’s future. At best, they are satirists with a decided bent in their presentations.

Yet, it is too easy to cross a line from being informed to having our passions aroused, and we are warned to be careful about what we consume with our minds and hearts. Psalm 101:3 reads, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.” Proverbs 4:23-27 tells us:

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.

So how do we reconcile clarity of mind with guarding our minds and hearts? Philippians 4:8 sums it up:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

This era of sensationalism and information overload doesn’t have to be the end of thought. God gives us the ability to think clearly, critically, and nobly – and that’s much greater than a Facebook tag.