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Social media is "ripping apart" society, says former Facebook executive

Tim Maytom

Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter are "tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works", a former Facebook executive has claimed, saying that he feels "tremendous guilt" over his previous work at the firm.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who served as vice-president for user growth at Facebook, made the comments at a Stanford Business School event in November, but they recently came to light in a report by The Verge. He recommended users take a "hard break" from social media, and called himself "something of a conscientious objector" to such services.

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," said Palihapitiya. "No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.

"This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem...it is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other."

Social media firms have come under increased scrutiny over the past few years, largely because of growing recognition of the way they facilitate harrassment and the spread of misinformation, with the 2016 US election proving a particular flashpoint for many issues.

Current investigations suggest that Russian operatives may have been responsible for introducing 'fake news' among US voters during the election, but the organic spread of these stories was a major factor in their impact. Similar issues also occurred during the Brexit referendum in the UK, and in the spread of anti-Rohingya propaganda in Myanmar during the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority.

During his talk, Palihapitiya referenced a case from the Indian state of Jharkhand, where earlier this year a set of WhatsApp messages spread a false warning of a group of kidnappers. The misinformation led to the lynching of seven people.

"That's what we're dealing with," said Palihapitiya. "Imagine when you take that to the extreme where bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to anything you want. It's just a really, really bad state of affairs.

"You behaviours, you don't realise it, but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you're going to give up, how much of your intellectual independence."