April 14, 2024

Should Facebook have its own chapter in a bioethics text?

Another challenge for justice and autonomy

Why hasn’t bioethics taken on the challenge of social media? After all, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other products are changing the way that we interact and how we think. If gun control is a bioethical issue, why not the seductive power of products scientifically tailored to weaken autonomy and exploit human weakness?

Without lingering on this immense topic, here are some widely reported remarks by Sean Parker, a young billionaire who was Facebook’s founding president and the co-founder of Napster:

“When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be.’ And then they would say, ‘No, no, no. I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ And I would say, … ‘We’ll get you eventually.’”

“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

“And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

“The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

At first blush, the link to medicine and health may seem tenuous. But consider well-known topics like doctors discussing patients on Facebook, cyberbullied teens committing suicide, advertising for organ donors and advertising for surrogate mothers. Surely bioethicists could shed some light on a commercial product whose by-product is violations of privacy, facilitating shady practices, and suicide … 

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