Of Concern – The Facebook Dilemma – Tonight on PBS

Hear the early warnings about Facebook’s impact on privacy and democracy in the U.S. and around the world, as well as the company’s response to charges of promoting “fake news” and disrupting American politics. Dozens of original interviews and rare footage show how Facebook faced claims of misuse while becoming an unprecedented global player, and show the company’s role sowing division worldwide and the challenges facing the social media platform.

There’s no “gotcha!” moment to startle you into unfriending the scarily influential social media platform.

But none are needed. Enough can be verified now about “Facebook” CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s business model, safety and security lapses and secretive data mining operations to let billions of us make an informed risk analysis about Facebook, our lives and its digital surveillance thereof. I’m still on Facebook, for the record. If you are, too, you should watch this two-hour “Frontline” report. For news feed scrollers and algorithm patsies everywhere, director James Jacoby’s careful, dogged, very fine documentary will make for an engrossing lesson in the price of a “like.”

For “Frontline” and “60 Minutes,” Jacoby worked on documentaries about Harvey Weinstein, Guantanamo Bay and the current administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, so he knows something about disasters in the making. He and co-producer and co-writer Anya Bourg build their portrait of an unregulated corporate monster around interviews with former and current Facebook employees, many with extraordinarily high-minded job titles. (One interview subject, Naomi Gleit, is Facebook’s current VP of “social good.”)

Archival footage of Zuckerberg’s appearances through the years, first as a beer-cup-holding bro straight out of Harvard and ready to make money, reveals impetuous ambition underscored by Zuckerberg’s early motto: “Move fast and break things.”

That archival footage includes one memorably panicky interview a few years later, by which time the vaunted privacy protection of Facebook’s users had been proven demonstrably false. (Zuckerberg was not interviewed for this “Frontline” project.) Former Facebook global public policy director Tim Sparapani recalls a time when he assumed, like his colleagues, that the public’s “common sense and common decency” would keep things on track. But as Arab Spring activist and initial Facebook champion Wael Ghonim tells Jacoby, after the Egyptian uprising in 2011, fake news vitriol and deceptive, inflammatory Facebook pages popped up like mad, and soon there was blood in the streets.

The ridiculously simple truth about Facebook and its role in modern elections? “If I call my opponent names,” Ghonim says, regarding the social media platform, the clicks and likes and shares go up.

The weaponizing of Facebook flourished in the wake of the Arab Spring, and of Russia’s fake-news, Facebook-facilitated assault on the Ukraine. The 2016 U.S. presidential election, and Russia’s Facebooking role in swinging it against Hillary Clinton, comes in for the right amount of screen time in “The Facebook Dilemma.” Enough, but not too much, in other words. Jacoby strives to create patterns of use and abuse, not settle any one score.

Donald Trump’s 2016 digital media director Brad Parscale, now ramping up his efforts as Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, notes that he spent $100 million in Facebook advertising to help get his guy in office. Ironic, he adds: Trump made hay on a company and a digital town hall “that was all built by liberals.”

Throughout the documentary, which is swiftly paced but cogently focused on a few themes, we hear of warning signs about the political abuses of Facebook going unheeded. The company didn’t want to deal with safety and security until it absolutely had to. Understaffing (galling, considering the profits involved), a lack of governmental regulation and other factors combined with a moment in American culture when “hyperpartisan” divisions became a ripe new business model.

As Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, says to Jacoby: “Fear and anger” creates “greater engagement,” and therefore “more advertising value.” With the midterm elections coming soon, Facebook has created an “election integrity team” to help Zuckerberg’s creation to learn from its past mistakes. “The Facebook Dilemma” chronicles those mistakes, reminding us that Facebook knows a lot more about us than we do about Facebook.

“The Facebook Dilemma” airs Monday 10-29 and Tuesday 10-30 on your local PBS and online at pbs.org/facebookdilemma.

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