A Decade Later, Facebook Wields Unprecedented Mass Influence

Posted February 7th, 2014 at 2:32 pm (UTC-4)
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FILE - A painting is pictured at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. (Reuters)

FILE – A painting is pictured at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. (Reuters)

The world before Facebook was a different place. Social networking sites like SixDegrees, Friendster and MySpace laid the social media groundwork as early as 1997 before some of them faded away.  But when Facebook showed up in 2004, it took the social networking game to a whole new level.

Facebook changed the world in major ways, says Kamy Akhavan, President of ProCon.org, a non-partisan research group that looks at both sides of controversial issues. “What [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg has done is now something that is so big it cannot be undone. And we are just living with the good and bad consequences,” he said.

With more than a billion users worldwide and one in seven people using the website, Akhavan says Facebook has become the most popular social networking site on the planet, registering more than 2.7 likes, 200 million photo uploads, and 2.5 billion status updates every day.

“It is a tremendous operation to run,” he said; and the consequences cut both ways.

The social network has facilitated an explosion of ideas and industries. It became an important source of news, often allowing citizen reporters to be on the scene ahead of major media outlets. It spurred voter participation, encouraged political freedoms and social good. It allowed people anywhere in the world to interact at any time and reach out to new friends even as it exposed them to new dangers.

Facebook Video: A Look Back

Akhavan says cyber bullying did not exist before Facebook showed up. “A June 2012 Consumer Reports survey showed that there were 800,000 minors who are bullied or harassed on Facebook,” he said. “They are middle school children who are victims of cyber bullying who are twice as likely to attempt suicide.”

That is not to say Facebook and other social networks are to blame for this phenomenon. But cyber bullies, stalkers, thieves have found in them a new tool to seek out minors and other victims. And privacy violators, data miners, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are using them to track criminals, sift through online information, and lay bare the private information of ordinary people, with or without their knowledge.

Are ordinary users guilty for their social networking obsession? Akhavan recalls a 2012 study that found that “Americans are spending 74 billion minutes on social media on their home computers, 40 billion on apps, 5.7 billion via their mobile phones – 121 billion minutes on social networking sites.”

But it’s not just Americans who are being distracted by Facebook and like sites. Social media has become a global distraction, taking people away from doing what they normally do.

“That’s a vastly different landscape than it was 10 years ago when out time was spent doing other things – having conversations with each other face to face or not, you know, playing the latest versions of Farmville and the other things that social media brings,” he said.

And that’s where Facebook’s standout achievement lies – its ability to “mass people together and get them to react,” says Akhavan.

“The amount of minds they are able to influence via this platform is tremendous,” said Akhavan.”That number of users – a billion – is larger than the population of almost every country on this planet. It is a tremendous reach that they have.”

It is also a bit scary. A case in point is an incident that took place in Mexico in 2012, when messages spread on Facebook that caravans of gunmen were loose in a Mexico City suburb. “They spread like wildfire over Twitter and Facebook,” said Akhavan. “It caused panic. The police department received over 3,000 phone calls. They shut down schools.”

It all turned out to be false.

The episode illustrates that, while Facebook and social media can often be a powerful tool for the common good, information found anywhere online must be parsed carefully.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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