Last week The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles exposing the fact that Facebook’s own internal research concluded that their Instagram platform was causing severe psychological harm to its teenage users, particularly teenage girls. The communications the investigation uncovered highlighted links between use of the platform and increased depression, suicidal ideation, and the exacerbation negative feelings about their bodies many young girls struggle with in U.S. culture.
And yet Facebook persisted, doing nothing to address this harmful impact of the platform while reaping $100 billion in profit and promoting external studies that denied any correlation between social media use and depression.
Reporting for CNN Business, Allison Morrow described some of the moments in the Facebook internal research as ‘”jaw-dropping.”
Without a doubt, the behavior is heinously corrupt and inhumane, but to call it “jaw-dropping” risks glossing over the prevalence and, frankly, widespread acceptance, even celebration, of this kind of behavior in U.S. politics, economics, and society.
If we react with surprise, as if this behavior is somehow out of the ordinary, a departure from the paths on which our dominant moral and cultural compasses guide us in America, we miss the opportunity to diagnose precisely and clearly the serious and deleterious condition from we suffer as a people and a social system.
As we diagnose this condition, it will help to underscore the prevalence of key symptoms of the illness, the dynamic of putting profit over people and of knowingly engaging in our social, political, and economic endeavors in destroying the very basis on which our human lives depend.
The tobacco industry is perhaps the most infamous symptom of this disease. It is widely known that major cigarette companies were aware of the dangerous and deadly effects of the product they were peddling to consumers well before the surgeon general required they put a warning on cigarette packages. And even after the damaging effects and addictiveness of cigarettes were public and common knowledge, the industry still targeted teens, seeking to expand their markets and increase profits at the expense of human health.
And take the fact that the oil industry, we have learned, has known for some time that the burning of fossil fuels was contributing to the warming of the environment, portending catastrophic consequences.
These are just two examples of a much more widespread, indeed thoroughgoing, dynamic that is symptomatic of a deeper illness in our human condition.
The philosopher Karl Marx named this malignant condition “alienation.” And while the powerful anti-communist tendencies in American culture might urge us to dismiss Marx’s thinking on simple ad hominem grounds, we might be wise to consider what Marx was thinking when he diagnosed this root condition plaguing peoples living in class societies throughout human history.
While the concept of alienation Marx developed has many layers and dimensions, one chief way he seeks to get us to understand it is by asking us to see that we, as human beings, largely create and collectively produce the world in which we live, and yet many who take part in making the world and contributing to its day to day functioning nonetheless experience that world as an external entity that is alien and hostile to them. One might put in a full work week picking fruit or building homes but then not have the means to afford to adequately feed or house one’s family, for example. Or, while we produce the world and, collectively in some sense make decisions about how to produce the world, organize our social systems, and so forth, we create a world that poisonous for us, hostile to human life and difficult to inhabit.
We, as humans, collectively speaking (obviously some individuals and groups have more power in making decisions than others—for Marx those typically on highest rungs of the ladder of class society), decide how to organize our political systems and social relationships, how to use and distribute resources, and so forth.
And yet, we act like Dr. Frankenstein who has created a monster he cannot control, an alien force that now acts on him.
While Facebook has knowingly created a platform harmful to its users, don’t our political and economic leaders do this all time?
We can access the means to help folks in dire need during the economic shutdown the pandemic necessitated, but Republicans wanted to withhold funding, challenging the America Rescue Act. Let Americans suffer.
We know our economic system generates gross and ever-increasing inequality. So, let’s give the wealthiest individuals and corporations a trillion dollar tax cut while millions of people can’t meet their basic needs, even when working a full-time job.
To save money, let’s alter the water system in Flint, Michigan, poisoning the local population in the name of fiscal responsibility.
And these larger dynamics of alienation, for Marx, impact us on the individual level. We experience alienation from our own core humanity, which alienates us from others. We can longer decipher our actual and material relationship to others in society, seeing them as alien. Racism and sexism are such forces of alienation, prompting white people to see people of color as other or alien or the male population to see women as such, legitimating violence and oppression against them. Or, it might prompt someone to say, “I don’t have to wear a mask or get a vaccine, but it’s just about my personal freedom.” These individuals don’t understand that they live in relationship to other people and that what happens in that relationship impacts them.
So, Facebook’s behavior is a symptom of alienation, and it shouldn’t be any kind of “jaw-dropping” surprise.
The more we are surprised, the further we are from understanding and closely studying and addressing the fundamental condition plaguing us.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.