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Facebook under scrutiny at Intellectual Forum event

'The problem with Facebook is Facebook' stated the opening slide for Antisocial media - what is social media doing to our society?, the latest Intellectual Forum event for the 2018 Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

The statement was made by Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects us and Undermines Democracy, setting the tone for a fascinating discussion. 

Professor Vaidhyanathan was joined by Dr Nóra Ni Loideain, Director of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, and Professor John Thompson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, Director of Polity Press and Fellow of Jesus College. 

The expert panel explored how Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and other social media companies have hit the headlines over the last years, debating the effects that social media is having on democracy and society. 
Prof Vaidhyanathan highlighted the huge market dominance of Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users. When this sheer scale is combined with algorithmic amplification of certain content and a hugely powerful advertising system, Facebook has far more influence and reach than anything seen before. Prof Vaidhyanathan said that because Facebook amplifies content that generates strong emotional reactions, there is a bias in favour of showing highly controversial and provocative material, no matter how accurate, as well as kitten videos. He argued that any solution to counteract the negative effects of Facebook has to be based on understanding just how powerful all these factors are, and must address them all. 
Prof Thompson questioned some of the arguments made and asked for more detail on Prof Vaidhyanathan's proposed solutions. He suggested that Facebook’s power and influence was overestimated in some cases and underestimated in others, and commented how surprised he was to keep reading many undergraduate essays that naively credited Facebook as a vehicle for radical democratic change in the Arab Spring, without addressing the wider concerns.
Concerns around data and privacy were explored by Dr Ni Loideain, who stressed that the influence of Facebook should be considered through the prism of the entire family of Facebook platforms, including Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. She argued that the secrecy surrounding algorithms and the approaches to tackling ‘fake news’ create a trust issue, asking who or what can we trust in when it comes to social media?

Dr Julian Huppert, Director of the Intellectual Forum, said ‘There is no doubt that social media platforms are changing our world and society, for good and for ill. This was a fascinating discussion about how Facebook, the largest of the platforms, can have very negative effects on society even if they were not intended. The next challenge is what to do about them!’

You can watch a livestream from the event below.