Facebook, at its core, is designed to show things to its users that they will share, like and click. And that very same design is what helped the platform become so good at spreading hoaxes and misinformation: A good hoax shows you what you want to believe, true or not. And we share things that we want to be true.
Although viral misinformation itself became a viral, vital topic of discussion after the 2016 elections, platforms like Facebook are still struggling to undo their own repeated roles in amplifying it. And that delay is what prompted Ben Grosser, an artist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to offer a semi-tongue-in-cheek solution: What if we just got rid of all the content?
Enter Safebook, the newest Chrome extension from Grosser, who has made a habit of developing tools that allow Facebook's users to experiment on it - and learn how Facebook is, in turn, experimenting on them.
Once you've made it truly safe using Grosser's extension, Facebook is still, technically, usable, Grosser notes. It just has no text or visuals.
As Grosser tested his plugin, he noticed that he knew Facebook so well, the complete removal of content didn't really prevent him from using the platform. He was able to post, he said in an interview, and people responded. "I was posting tests," he said, "and I was getting a lot of likes."
"It reveals not only how ingrained the interface has become but also shows how the interface drives how we use the system," Grosser added. It's not just Facebook's content that has become a part of our lives. We know how to work Facebook, almost by instinct, without any actual content to guide our way.
Of all of Grosser's Facebook experiments, Safebook is no doubt the most drastic transformation of the platform. He created Go Rando, an extension that randomized the emotes so that clicking "like" on a friend's post became a game of emotional roulette. He has a still-popular tool, the Demetricator, for both Twitter and Facebook, which more or less hides all those tantalizing numbers on social media platforms saying how many likes or retweets a post got, or how many notifications you have. Installing Demetricator is designed to make you think about the incentives driving you to post and like and keep coming back.
"First I took off the metrics, then I hid images, and then I randomized emotional reactions, and there's a little bit of, 'Well this is what I got left,' " Grosser joked of Safebook. But the plugin, which Grosser doesn't really expect anyone will use long term, is about more than amusement.
"I do intend it to be another opportunity to look at how we are influenced by the interface," Grosser said. Unlike the Demetricator, Grosser doesn't expect that anyone will keep Safebook active for long. Facebook is only just usable with the extension active. Just a little bit of time in Safebook should be enough to learn something.
Safebook is also a comment on what, if anything, Facebook could do to solve the slow-burning crisis of misinformation that has defined the company in 2018, plus its other potentially negative effects, such as the amplification of anxiety and ideological divisions and the erosion of privacy.
The proposed solution, to delete all the content, is not entirely a joke, either.
"They can try and patch the system all they want with moderation, algorithm tweaks, reputation metrics, but I would argue that any alternative requires a radical transformation," Grosser said.
Grosser refers to all his social media projects as art - and Safebook is on the arty side of that spectrum. But recently, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey brought up the possibility of a Demetricator-like solution to the ills plaguing that platform. In an interview with The Washington Post, Dorsey mentioned the possibility of changing how the site displays follower counts. He elaborated during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
When Twitter was founded 12 years ago, Dorsey said, "we made the number of followers big and bold, and a very simple, but noticeable font. And just that decision alone has incentivized people to want to grow that number, to increase that number. And the question we are now asking: Is that necessarily the right incentive?"
The comments gave Grosser hope that perhaps Twitter, at least, was considering some of the same ideas he explores in his work. "This is the closest that I've ever heard anybody at any of these companies suggest that there's maybe something going on here that they should pay attention to," Grosser said.
Safebook raises one obvious question about Facebook's role in our future: If the only way to make Facebook truly safe is just to delete all the content, why not also delete your account?
"People aren't going to get off Facebook. I'm not trying to get them off Facebook," Grosser said. The idea is more to push people into imagining how this incredibly powerful platform could become less harmful to society - and the time it's taking for solutions to materialize.
"Safebook is a reaction, partially, to the fact that we are still dealing with this," Grosser said. "We are heading for the next election, and not enough is being done."
This article was written by Abby Ohlheiser, a reporter for The Washington Post.