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Siva Vaidhyanathan reveals the dangers of Facebook

by Julie Averette

ELON, N.C. – Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia,

views Facebook as a lethal rabbit hole disguised as a lighthearted social media platform.

“For some people,” he said, “Facebook is an aid for getting through the day.”

Uncovering the hidden agendas and the negative effects of Facebook, Vaidhyanathan spoke at

Elon University Sept. 24 on “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines

Democracy.” He encouraged the audience to strip back the Facebook functions everyone is

familiar and see its darker truth.

“I plan to convince you of three things: Facebook matters more than just about anything, the

nature of Facebook is dangerous, and there is almost nothing we can do about it,” he said.

The former professional journalist compares people’s continued use of Facebook to driving a

car. Vaidhyanathan said while cars are terrible for the planet, they help get people to places

faster. It is especially hard to give up a habit when billions of people are doing it around the

Facebook has 2.2 billion active users every month and puts in a “pretty stunning effort” by

operating in over 100 languages around the world, he said. It is the leading social media

platform in terms of users, with Youtube in second place with 1.9 billion users. Four out of the

six most used platforms are owned by Facebook.

Social media is not a foreign subject to Vaidhyanathan. Author of “Intellectual Property: A Very

Short Introduction” and “The Googlization of Everything – and Why We Should Worry,” as well

as two other books, he has studied social network services and their effects since the early

2000s. Vaidhyanathan also appeared in an episode of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.

To Vaidhyanathan, what makes Facebook so dangerous is its algorithmic amplification and its

advertising system. It’s all about engagement, he said. Posts that initiate likes, comments, and

shares drives Facebook.

Strong emotions stir the pot, which is “great for motivation, terrible for deliberation,” he said.

Opinionated discussions result in banter that lasts hours. It’s never ending because as

Vaidhyanathan says, “you can’t argue with the crazy.” And it doesn’t help that Facebook will

place such emotional posts at the top of people’s timelines due to the many likes, comments,

and shares they receive. 

Many people are aware of the advertisements that litter their screens as they scroll through

social media. What most people don’t know is that social media platforms such as Facebook
strategically place ads that hit their targeted audiences, while at the same time preventing

specific people groups from viewing certain ads, Vaidhyanathan said.

“Artificial intelligence is coming.” Vaidhyanathan let his words sit with the audience before

revealing the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg's vision for social media users.

“He’s working on a project. He’s gonna create a machine learning system that will accurately

predict how much time is spent on an app . . . His dream is that we use Facebook more and

more than most things we use in life.”

Unfortunately, Vaidhyanathan does not have a solution to the impending doom of Facebook

taking over the entirety of our time and energy. And this is because Facebook is already too

alluring and has already weaved its way into people’s everyday routines.

“If you wanted to invent a propaganda system to promote nationalism and authoritarianism,

you could not invent one better than Facebook,” Vaidhyanathan said. Facebook isn’t focused on

topics that truly matter, such as the election or disease epidemics. Nevertheless, “we truly

believe it makes our lives better.”

Replacing real life interactions with memories brought to you by virtual algorithms is not

everyone’s cup of tea. Many students were shaken by the negative effects of Facebook

Vaidhyanathan outlined.
“I thought it was really scary when he talked about advertising,” sophomore Claudia Hedrick

said, “and how they’re (Facebook) able to specifically target people and exclude people.”

Others left feeling skeptical of the reliability of social media when Vaidhyanathan mentioned

Facebook’s latest project with artificial intelligence obtaining people’s social media data to

provide more accurate feeds.

“I think it’s hard to predict how humans behave, so I don’t really know if there is one way to do

it,” sophomore Elizabeth Peterson said.

Facebook has “always been about transforming the world,” Vaidhyanathan said. But his

question for Zuckerberg is, “Who asked you to? Who asked you to change my mind, to change

my life, to change my world?”