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Williams: If Facebook won't change, the next break should be ours.

Williams: If Facebook won't change, the next break should be ours.

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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haguen testified before Congress on Tuesday. Here's the major highlights from her opening statement.

When Instagram crashed for six hours on Monday, Sarah Choi's reaction hopscotched from "FREEDOM!" to "addiction."

The Richmond, Va.-based marketing consultant noticed her finger opening the Instagram app on her phone out of habit.  "It felt way more than 6 hours because I was in a low-signal zone all morning," Choi said Monday night during -- of course -- our direct message chat on Instagram. She called it "sobering" how often she opens the app when she doesn't need to. "It is an addiction."

We survived the blackout. But can we survive the influence of Facebook, whose products can be so destabilizing on a personal and national level?

In the wake of allegations by a whistleblower who formerly worked at the company, some folks would love to see Facebook --  whose media empire includes Instagram and WhatsApp -- go offline for good. 

Tuesday, Frances Haugen, who shared the company's internal documents with the media and federal law enforcement, testified before Congress that Facebook's products "harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy. The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people." 

There's no problem Facebook can't exacerbate by hosting a toxic stream of misinformation about election integrity, global warming or the pandemic. As NBC12 meteorologist Andrew Freiden wryly tweeted: "Lots of covid-19 and climate change research taking a pause today because Facebook is down." (Twitter, which for too long enabled a lying wannabe autocrat, needs this sort of whistleblower.)

With a few taps on a keyboard, the folks who eked out a D in science have become experts in climatology, virology and vote tabulation.

Facebook is their superpower.

Meanwhile, Instagram is causing mental-health issues, particularly among teenage girls confronted with images of seemingly perfect bodies, according to the company's own research. Facebook has pumped the brakes on the rollout of a supposedly kid-friendly version of Instagram. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., noted in an Instagram video Monday evening that Instagram and WhatsApp were successful independent apps before they were purchased by Facebook. 

"Maybe we should be asking ourselves why one company is trying to monopolize the internet communication platforms and digital commerce and maybe we should break them up," she said. 

Indeed, too much information and communication in too few hands is demonstrably bad for democracy. But as our climate dilemma shows, Facebook isn't the only corporation reaping huge profits at our potential peril. 

What afflicts social media is a symptom. We can't arrive at a cure without curbing the appetite of rapacious capitalism, whose special talent is pushing products that are too unsustainable to live with, but too useful -- or even seductive -- to live without.  

I have friends and colleagues I rarely see anymore, but a virtual facsimile of their lives is as close as the Instagram app.  For me, Instagram has filled gaps in interpersonal connection created by the pandemic.

But Choi took long stretches away from social media during this pandemic "especially after it showed how differently my 'friends' feel about social justice, racial equity and getting vaccinated." And I've found myself creating distance after overdosing on Facebook's corrosive discourse.  

For Choi, Instagram is more than a diversion; it's a crucial tool in her business. When I asked what she would have done if the outrage had extended into days, she replied: "Work wise, I would have to get together with clients to develop Plan B.  I'm running communication for a friend who's running for a city council seat in New Orleans and we were supposed to 'come back' after [Hurricane] Ida today.

"October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so a longer delay would mean we would have to shuffle content or think of other ways to share, like an email campaign for YWCA Richmond."

Beyond her business, Choi's Instagram posts and stories are a warm mix of sisterhood nurtured, Korean heritage celebrated, and delectable food about to be consumed. A constant subtext is her life as a single mom. "For me, it is a personal growth diary and parenting diary for my son," she said. 

Instagram, she said, is only viable when used properly. "It only shows tips of icebergs. Real work is off Instagram and looking at the whole of the iceberg."

Haugen said Tuesday that Facebook "has the potential to bring out the best in us." But we shouldn't need it to do that for us. 

That blackout was a signal to create our own social media breaks and explore what's important -- our health, our values, our community, our imperfections -- with greater openness, depth and compassion.  

Because as we all know, it's the unseen part of the iceberg that sinks us. 

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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