Some Facebook users were alarmed Tuesday to see a new feature in their news feeds. Under many posts, Facebook had added this question:
“Does this post contain hate speech?” along with two buttons, “Yes” and “No.”
A good move by Facebook to help identify and root out all the nastiness of social media? Or an ominous invitation to its users to become informants?
Facebook reportedly disabled the feature after its morning test - which Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product, called “a bug” on Twitter - but not before it sparked immediate concern among users.
Social media sites including Facebook and Twitter have been under intense criticism for allowing fake accounts - many traced to Russia - to manipulate public opinion during the 2016 presidential election and spread hate speech and other messages designed to inflame prejudices and deepen divisions among Americans.
So it’s not surprising to see Facebook trying to curtail hate speech among its 2 billion users. But asking people to rat out their friends is not the way to go.
In 2014, China announced a “social credit system” with the goal, according to the government, of “raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.” A more civil society? Sound nice! But who defines what’s civil? And what happens to those who don’t achieve a perfect score?
China’s social credit system is being rolled out now, in various forms, across the country. Citizens are urged to install apps that use face recognition, GPS and other data to track their good behavior - crossing at the light, tossing trash in designated spots, driving at the speed limit, etc. - and also allow users to report other citizens who don’t follow the rules. That guy who never picks up after his dog? Snap a picture and ding his score!
The government aims to have the system fully in place by 2020, and participation will be mandatory.
Of course, it’s easy to see how an authoritarian government such as China’s can implement a system so quickly. For a person with bad social credit, life is tough. Travel is restricted - Channel News Asia reports 9 million people with poor social credit have been barred from buying domestic plane tickets. Internet speeds are slowed down. Children of low scorers are being kept out of better schools.
What’s more unnerving, though, is how many Chinese have so readily embraced the system voluntarily. Why? Because for high scorers there are immediate rewards - discounts on rent or utility bills, better interest rates at banks, even boosted online dating profiles. If it doesn’t sound tempting, consider all the rewards programs Americans already belong to - it isn’t so hard to manipulate our behavior either, is it?
If this sounds like Netflix’s dystopian series “Black Mirror,” you might’ve seen the “Nosedive” episode, which imagines a world where everyone rates one another on a five-star scale. It doesn’t go well.
Facebook hasn’t introduced anything (yet) as far-reaching as China’s social credit system. But seeing those prompts, which might as well have read, “Want to turn in your friend for spreading hate speech?” raised important alarms.
Proceed with caution, Facebook, because your users may be considering a different question: “Is it time to ditch social media?”
Lara Weber is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board.