As Sarah Zhang reports at The Atlantic, “People are sharing their deepest secrets on Facebook” in a myriad number of support groups for things like marital infidelity, learning that you do not share DNA with your parents, as well as for those suffering from diseases like cancer. Given Facebook’s lousy reputation for maintaining user privacy and for managing bad actors on the platform, does the social network have any idea of what their responsibilities are with regard to protecting vulnerable users from exploitation by trolls and manipulators?
It was Christopher’s therapist who suggested he look for help online. His wife had cheated on him, and he had been struggling since their divorce, but the $25 copays were adding up. His therapist proposed an online support group—free, discreet, available 24/7.
So he went, naturally, to Facebook, where a search turned up multiple private groups for people dealing with a partner’s infidelity. (Christopher had divorced his wife after finding out that their daughter was not his biological child. When I interviewed him, he asked that we withhold his real name.) From there, he got invitations to other support groups on Facebook, more targeted and even more specific: a group for families dealing with misattributed paternity, a group for children learning the same from DNA tests.
Anyone can start a Facebook group—including people trying to profit off one. While many founders of support groups are people simply trying to find others like themselves, some have used the groups as extensions of their business. In November 2017, The Verge investigated a prominent group called Affected by Addiction, whose founder was even invited to speak at Facebook’s first Communities Summit earlier that year. The founder, it turns out, was also a marketer for treatment centers that mined the group for potential patients, according to The Verge. The ties had not been disclosed.
When Facebook announced its decision to emphasize groups in 2017, the company also changed its mission statement. “It’s not enough to simply connect the world; we must also work to bring the world closer together,” Zuckerberg wrote. The change came after its attempt to connect the world ended up spreading fake news with sometimes disastrous consequences. Facebook had failed to understand the machine it built.