A reflection on Facebook

Within a week after I wrote about the President becoming a purveyor of fake news, someone decided to teach me a lesson by setting up a Facebook account using my name and an old photo of myself riding a motorcycle. It looked authentic enough, except for the fine print listing my title as “Ediotor” (sic) of the Inquirer, and describing my work as “trash.”

For a couple of days, this “Randy David” began posting offensive updates in bold letters. One of these posts announced the death of a person I didn’t know. Another was a sexist remark about a television celebrity from years back.

Soon a friend of the person who was supposed to be dead but who is very much alive messaged my wife, a Facebook friend, to say that a fake account may have been created using my name. This friend forwarded a link to the fake account, and attached a photo of her friend, who was, indeed, alive and well. The undead friend had apparently received the same link from another FB friend, who rightly wondered if we even knew each other. Later, another friend of mine alerted me to the presence of this fake account and the “disgusting” posts that have been issuing out of it. Aware that the Facebook world may be outside my area of competence, she advised me to seek the help of a techie to report the account.

Being an active FB user, my wife Karina knew more or less what to do. First, she reported the issue to Facebook. The procedure was quick and pretty straightforward. Then, she messaged my daughters, all FB natives, and other people in her contact list who know me, warning them about the fake account, and urging them to report it and alert their friends. The avalanche of reports may have persuaded the FB team that this particular “profile” was indeed a breach of “Facebook Community Standards.”  It was promptly removed before it could cause further damage.

I do have a real FB account from way back. It was opened for me with my permission by a young techie friend who thought that I should let more people read my Inquirer columns by posting them on Facebook. Unfortunately, my decision to restrict my digital presence to what I think is essential has prevented me from updating my profile and responding to communication from friends. Before I realized it, I forgot my password and became too lazy to register a new one.

But, this recent incident made me revisit my old FB account, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was still there, with a long list of unattended friend requests. Suddenly I felt like someone who had just moved into a community but had been too shy or aloof to even acknowledge the greetings of neighbors. I felt chastened.

Instead of being angry at Facebook over this malicious misuse of my name, I was struck by the power of this amazing tool of human networking and interconnectness to recreate a sense of community and solidarity. What impressed me most was the breadth of its reach and the instantaneous quality of its communications. Here, people do take the trouble to let you know they are there when and if you need them.

For all the abuses that have been committed on its multiple platforms, I still think social media in general has brought us closer to realizing the potential of a world society. It is, in my view, ultimately a self-governing community, and must be left at that. As more people get used to its functions, new internal controls are likely to evolve. I would not invite the state to interfere in the administration of its affairs.

We were discussing the future of the mass media in my undergraduate class the other day. I asked my students, all millennials, what is to be done about the scourge of fake news.  Their responses were interesting. First, they said, there is no substitute for education; in particular, there is a need for lessons in social media literacy aimed at helping digital citizens navigate their way in this exciting new world which, like the old one we know, is equally filled with traps. Second, there is a need for all the mass media, both the traditional and the new, to work together to combat the problem of misinformation and deliberate disinformation.

This last observation surprised me. I always thought that young people nowadays don’t pay much attention to print, radio, or television, since they are wont to rely almost wholly on social media. I was told that this was true only to a certain extent, that many of them still turn to the newspapers or television for confirmation of major news events. Which is why nothing makes the purveyors of fake news happier than when their posts are picked up and given credence by mainstream media.

Mainstream media can certainly fact-check internet-based social media, and regularly publish or broadcast its findings. But the relationship need not be a one-way street. A critical public that regularly observes the operations of mainstream media, and, using social media, quickly responds to any perceived slant or bias or disinformation in the traditional media, can only be good for democracy.

Given the immense untapped capabilities of internet-based media, I believe that, for the first time, we are coming face to face with public opinion in the true sense of the word. Not the world view of respondents filtered through opinion surveys, or the viewpoint of a privileged group of opinion-makers, but the articulated sense of a communicatively empowered public.

Facebook is one of the most navigable platforms that can be used by this newly empowered public. But its digital constituents need to protect it especially from the kind of abuse that results from harnessing it as a tool to promote the agenda of the powerful.