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Is Facebook really a threat to Western civilization? It’s complicated

The last thing Americans want is government decimating information.

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A conference worker at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose, California.

A conference worker passes a demo booth at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif.

Noah Berger, Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — Free Facebook!

Not because I think the social media behemoth — worth about $930 billion, according to MacroTrends — is good for America. I’m not sure it is. But not every product has to be either “good for America” or “bad for America.”

And not because I think the company is innocent of any wrongdoing. Given what we have learned over the decades about how mega-companies operate, it would not surprise me to learn that CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others who run Facebook made compromises, cut corners or pushed the envelope.

I rise in defense of Facebook because — having heard the recent testimony of Frances Haugen, former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation — it’s clear that much of the indictment is unfair, overblown and hypocritical.

Portions of Haugen’s scathing attack on Facebook were pretty far-fetched. She went for broke and often came up empty.

One of Haugen’s best lines was: “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.”

That’s plausible. If money corrupts, then how corrupting do you suppose is Facebook’s annual revenue of $86 billion?

I also found believable Haugen’s accusation that “when Facebook is directly asked questions as important as how do you impact the health and safety of our children, they mislead and they choose to mislead and misdirect.”

I cover politicians for a living. I’ve seen the dark side of human behavior. In some professions, “mislead” and “misdirect” are standard operating procedure.

Yet at other times during her testimony, Haugen careened off the rails. Like when she accused Facebook of aiming to “deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”

Facebook is dividing America? So we Americans — white and Black, immigrant and native, rich and poor — were getting along swimmingly until Zuckerberg turned his Harvard dorm room into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory on the Charles River? Is that what happened?

And democracies are being destabilized from Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California? Haugen blamed the company for unrest in Ethiopia and Myanmar. So, in those tumultuous places, citizens are threatening to overthrow their government not because they’re fed up with repressive policies but because someone posted something inflammatory on Facebook? That’s convenient for foreign governments to claim if they want to duck responsibility for inspiring revolution.

And, yes, it’s true that Facebook owns Instagram and evidence is mounting that the photo- and video-sharing site harms young girls and women by making them feel insecure about their bodies. A recent study found that 3 in 10 teenage girls said that Instagram made them feel worse about themselves.

I have two daughters (one teen and one preteen), and I am fairly certain that — if Instagram disappeared tomorrow — my girls would still be bombarded with images that make them feel bad about their bodies — in magazines, on television, in movies and on the internet. It’s absurd to solely blame Facebook. The problem is much bigger than that.

Lastly, Haugen said the site “personalizes your feed for you.”

The scoundrels! Imagine a company that finds out what customers want and then gives it to them. Whoever heard of such a thing? In fact, I once knew of an industry that didn’t do this well. It used to put out a product called “newspapers.”

Listening to Haugen’s testimony, and the “amen” chorus on the Senate committee, I came away certain of three things:

  • It’s not Facebook’s job to raise our kids. That’s on us parents.
  • The market should decide the fate of companies. If you don’t like Facebook, don’t use it.
  • Politicians controlling speech in order to shake down companies for political contributions is always a bad idea.

Haugen thinks Facebook is like cigarettes. I think it’s like sugary soft drinks — not necessarily good for us but still not something that the government should ban or break up.

The last thing Americans want is government decimating information. The political parties would take turns running roughshod over the public’s right to know.

This issue shouldn’t be so difficult. Politicians take care of those who take care of them. Republicans refuse to regulate guns, and Democrats are reluctant to censor Hollywood movies.

Elected officials should exercise the same restraint with Facebook and keep their hands off the site. If they don’t, voters should “unfriend” them in the next election.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.