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Ex-Facebook VP: Social media destroying society with ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’

Washington PostA former Facebook executive is making waves after he spoke out about his "tremendous guilt" over growing the social network, which he feels has eroded "the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other."

Chamath Palihapitiya began working for Facebook in 2007 and left in 2011 as its vice president for user growth. When he started, he said, there was not much thought given to the long-term negative consequences of developing such a platform.

"I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen," said Palihapitiya, 41. "But I think the way we defined it was not like this."

That changed as Facebook’s popularity exploded, he said. The social network has more than 2 billion monthly users around the world and continues to grow.

But the ability to connect and share information so quickly — as well as the instant gratification people give and receive over their posts — has resulted in some negative consequences, Palihapitiya said.

"It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are," he said. "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth."

Facebook has pushed back on the former executive’s comments, saying in a statement Tuesday that Palihapitiya has not worked there for more than six years and that it was "a very different company back then."

Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist and part owner of the Golden State Warriors, made his remarks at a talk for Stanford Graduate School of Business students in November. Video of the talk was widely shared again this week after the Verge website reported on his comments Monday.

Though he didn’t have immediate answers on how to permanently correct the problem, Palihapitiya encouraged students to take a "hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on." He said he’s has posted on Facebook only a handful of times over the past several years and didn’t allow his children to use "this s-?-?-" either, referring to social media platforms. "Everybody else has to soul-search a little bit more about what you’re willing to do," he said. "Because your behaviors, you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed."

The problem is not isolated to Facebook, he said, citing other social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. Palihapitiya pointed to a hoax in India that had spread through WhatsApp and led to the lynching of several men falsely accused of being child traffickers.

"Bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything you want," he told the audience. "And we compound the problem. We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded in these short-term signals — hearts, likes, thumbs-up — and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it is, is fake, brittle popularity that’s short term and leaves you even more, admit it, vacant and empty before you did it."

As the Verge reported, Palihapitiya joined a chorus of former Facebook investors and employees now expressing regret over their contributions to the company: In November, early investor Sean Parker said that he has become a "conscientious objector" to social media, and that Facebook and others had succeeded by "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."

Facebook has also been criticized heavily for how it regulates — or doesn’t — the content and origin of ads on its platform, especially when it came to thousands of Russian ads that were created to influence voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. After some initial resistance, the company turned over thousands of Russian ads to Congress this fall.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had mostly downplayed the company’s responsibility to monitor and curate its content, saying it is not a media company. Notably, though, at the end of Yom Kippur this year, Zuckerberg posted an apology on his Facebook account "for the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together" and vowed to do better.

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