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Former Facebook executive says social media changing how people behave

Chamath Palihapitiya cited the lynching of seven people in Jharkhand that was triggered by a hoax on WhatsApp.

world Updated: Dec 12, 2017 22:30 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Facebook,WhatsApp,Chamath Palihapitiya
Chamath Palihapitiya speaking at the Stanford business school.(YouTube screengrab)

A former Facebook executive has said he feels “tremendous guilt” for his work on “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”, while citing the lynching of seven people in Jharkhand that was triggered by a hoax on WhatsApp.

Chamath Palihapitiya, now the CEO of Social Capital, joined Facebook in 2007 and rose to become its vice president for user growth before he left the social media giant in 2011. The Sri Lankan-origin tech entrepreneur said Facebook users would have to decide whether they want to be “programmed” and how much of their “intellectual independence” they were willing to give up.

Palihapitiya made the remarks while speaking at an event at the Stanford business school last month but they were reported by several websites only on Monday.

He made particular mention of the lynchings in Jharkhand – caused by a hoax on WhatsApp, which is now owned by Facebook – to drive home his point that social media is “eroding the core foundations of how people behave” with each other.

“There was a hoax in WhatsApp where in some like village in India, people were afraid that their kids were going to get kidnapped etc and then there were these lynchings that happened as a result, where people were like vigilante, running around, they think they found the person, I mean seriously,” he said.

“That’s what we’re dealing with…Imagine when you take that to the extreme – where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s a really, really bad state of affairs and we compound the problem.”

Palihapitiya said he felt “tremendous guilt” for the tools he helped create for Facebook, though he added that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world”.

“It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said.

“If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you, if you push back on it, we have a chance to control it, rein it in. It is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools and some of things you rely on – the short term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Referring to allegations of Russian meddling in the US elections through social media, he added: “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem, this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Palihapitiya said people on Facebook “curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection” to get rewarded with “hearts, likes thumbs up” and conflated that with value and the truth.

“Instead, what it really is, is fake brittle popularity that is short term and leaves you even more vacant and empty,” he said.

Palihapitiya joined a growing list of critics of Facebook, especially after concerns about how online platforms and the proliferation of fake news affected the outcome of the US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK.

Last month, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker criticised the way the company exploits a “vulnerability in human psychology” by creating a “social-validation feedback loop”.

First Published: Dec 12, 2017 21:35 IST