The Limits of Facebook: Traumatization, Censorship and Walls

How do we face a traumatizing social media experience?

Posted Sep 09, 2016

Pixabay, John Hain
Source: Pixabay, John Hain

Facebook has a challenging mission.  The social media giant is built on the premise of sharing photos, videos, words and even emotions.  “I share, therefore I am” is the modern Cartesian proposition.  But sometimes people share things that others find objectionable.  Removing offensive and sometimes illegal content is a major undertaking for both Facebook and Twitter.  A lot of person-hours are being spent on checking flagged content, and creating algorithms to take down shares that might promote terrorism, child pornography, or other illegal activities.  Users posting such material are frequently suspended or banned until the issues can be sorted out.  When Facebook oversteps (as it did when banning the images of Kim Phuc, the “napalm girl” in perhaps the most famous photo from the Vietnam War), the public erupts in outrage over censorship.

I commend Facebook for struggling with these issues.  But it all reminds me of the narrowness of the Facebook experience, and all the reasons I deactivated last year (see my then-viral NY Daily News op-ed, "Deactivate Facebook, Become Human".)  At first glance, the site seems to widen one’s horizons.  But we are in fact limited in at least four important ways.

  1. We are limited by the newsfeed algorithm.  We see only what Facebook wants us to see, what it thinks will keep us hooked. 
  2. We are limited by Facebook’s profit motive.  Eyeballs mean ad revenue.  Our relationships and participation have been commodified. 
  3. We are limited by our circle of friends, and what they share.  We tend to divide ourselves into opinion silos, hiding or defriending those with objectionable views.  Even when we keep contact with friends we disagree with, it is extremely difficult to find a path to common ground and common humanity online. 
  4. We are limited by the nature of the medium itself.  Text, image and opinion on a screen are substantially different from a conversation or a relationship.  A “Facebook friend” is not the same as a friend; the word itself has been co-opted and degraded. 

We can become far too dependent on the site, and like the frogs in a slowly heating pot of water, not know we’re about to be cooked.

One way we’re being cooked is through vicarious exposure to trauma, without the capacity to resolve it.

We’ve all been exposed to so much trauma online.  One man told me, “it’s heartbreaking and strange that I can watch two murders on my phone in less than four minutes.”  Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote for the Race/Related newsletter of the New York Times after a particularly bad week of killings in July (Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas police officers), “I could not help but think that this callous taking of life, the killing begetting killing, had revealed a rupture. I am not sure it will ever be fixed.”

Social media brings us evidence of the disease – but it can’t provide the cure.  It may in fact become a transmitter of the disease of disconnection that is at the root of so much suffering.  The opposite of suffering is belonging – and we can never truly belong online.

Compassion and wisdom come through the cultivation of relationship and knowledge.  The online experience tantalizes us with the promise of both – but it falls short.  The path to personal and communal peace and healing lies in grounding ourselves in reality and real world relationships.  The rupture that Hannah-Jones describes is ultimately an empathic failure.  We can’t bridge that rupture with tweets and posts.  It takes love.

Update:  See "The Trauma of Violent News on the Internet" in the NYT by Teddy Wayne, September 10, 2016

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