The last couple of years haven’t been smooth sailing for Facebook in terms of public relations. From U.S. election scandals and data privacy breaches to child pornography images and fake news manipulation, there is a growing awareness that Facebook may not be the happy-go-lucky social media friend that the majority of the online world has trusted for years.
But should we really be surprised? Considering the origins of Facebook, brought to mainstream light through Ben Mezrick’s 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook (adapted into David Fincher’s film The Social Network in 2010), I would argue not. Facebook may be almost synonymous with easy to access communication across the globe, but in its early stages, the site was not nearly as inclusive as it claims to be today.
The brainchild of young white males attending Harvard University, Facebook is certainly a product of privilege. Mark Zuckerberg first began to play with face books (online university directories) through the creation of FaceMash in 2003. The entire concept of this site was based on Hot or Not; women’s images were taken from college face books, despite the fact that such images were predominantly meant to stay privately within the college, meaning Zuckerberg had to hack the university systems to gain access to the photos. They were then placed next to each other, and users picked which woman they believed to be hotter. So simple, yet so degrading.
The act of reducing women—as these photos were, of course, exclusively of women—to purely physical objects is not a new phenomenon, but in his early days, Zuckerberg showed a proclivity for promoting the ease of such activities. Not only does it denigrate the female body to no more than a sexual object on display for the judgment of men, but it also promotes the relentless competition between women that is perpetuated even in today’s society.
Zuckerberg’s activities soon escalated as he turned his attention to creating a universal face book across colleges: the beginning of TheFacebook. Whilst he had evolved from just rating women’s faces against each other, this new site was also definitely not an inclusive space. Restricted at first to Harvard, the site then began to spread throughout Ivy League colleges. This site was closer to what we know now as Facebook currently but reserved for certain members of society. The educational elite were Zuckerberg’s first targets, despite his current claims for equal opportunity. He has justified the claims of political and media manipulation on Facebook by saying that the site merely offers the opportunity for all voices to be heard. It stands to reason that Facebook expanded outside of elite circles only because that market is finite. Once it was saturated, Facebook’s leaders looked outside of their original market. Yet it cannot be ignored that their first focus was the highly educated, the rich, and the privileged.
Why does this matter then? It was 2004, they were young, they’ve changed now, as people may say. It matters to me because I don’t believe they have.
Many users were shocked by Facebook’s data privacy failings and refused to believe the compelling claims of election bias through the placement of Russian ads targeting U.S. audiences during the 2016 election cycle. Terrorism has also been seen to spread in various countries via Facebook, through the creation of events and groups that went undetected by Facebook’s security protocols. Russian hackers have even been able to create events from afar to take place in the U.S., inciting hatred and division towards ethnic minorities such as Muslims. This has gone as far as promoted content on Facebook encouraging violence against Muslim women due to their support of Hillary Clinton. Viral group events sprang up across British and European Facebook communities in March of 2018 called ‘Punish A Muslim Day,’ with posts encouraging people to throw acid at Muslims or sexually assault women in hijabs.
Facebook has also been seen to be untrustworthy in business terms, giving false information to advertisers on what works best on Facebook’s newsfeed. The growth of video content, for example, drastically changed the media landscape because Facebook claimed video performed best. This has since turned out to be completely untrue, but Facebook never corrected themselves. The proliferation of videos has led to the spread of violent content on Facebook, including sexual abuse and child pornography in certain groups.
Naturally, these are some of the worst cases. In the day to day life of the majority, the most annoying thing about Facebook will probably be the number of ads you see on your newsfeed every day (reportedly one in five posts is sponsored content). Yet even the worst cases I cited above are indicative of a wider problem: GIGO. This stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out, a common concept often used in computer programming. Now though, it has been coined by sociological analysts to explain a common phenomenon in business: if something starts off with bad information or intentions, it will ultimately end up going to bad places.
Facebook began as FaceMash—a sexist and divisive tool that objectified women. It then grew into an exclusive space for the privileged, before morphing into something that could market itself as social media for everyone. I believe Facebook can be a tool for the proliferation of feminism and protest movements, in so far as it offers the opportunity to connect across the globe. We saw its potential for inclusion through the spread of Women’s Marches worldwide in solidarity with American women after the election of Trump. Yet the divisive nature of its origins and the figurehead of Mark Zuckerberg still at its helm means that, for me, this is just not true.
Facebook is not at the heart of feminism because it fundamentally violates feminist principles such as fundamental equality, intersectionality, and personal autonomy. He obstructs people’s privacy, allows for violence and hate speech until discovered, and his site, however unintentional, has recently fostered communication for negative purposes rather than positive. For example, terrorists have used both Facebook and WhatsApp, a company affiliated with Facebook, to organize attacks, such as the Manchester bombings and rioting in South America.
When something stems from an attack, however indirect, on one group, like FaceMash did, it will inevitably revert back to that state, or worse. Facebook as a descendant of FaceMash has grown into something damaging not just for women but for multiple minority groups. What began as a childish site bringing women down for the pleasure of men has grown into a giant that willingly sells user data, allows for the incitement of hatred, and views its users as products to be exploited for its own growth. These characteristics of Facebook are coming to light now—evidenced by their recent 20% market drop—but we should not be surprised by its shadier side. Garbage In, Garbage Out – we could have seen this coming from the beginning.