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Facebook was designed to exploit human vulnerability, says former Facebook President

At an Axios event in Philadelphia, Sean Parker – who was speaking about cancer research – criticised the manipulative nature of social networks, stating that Facebook’s founders intended for the network to be addictive.

Parker – who was also the co-founder of Napster – joined forces with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg five months after the social network was established, becoming its first president. Parker is now chair of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

He claimed that he had become a “conscientious objector” with regards to social media.

“The thought process that went into building these [social networks] – Facebook being the first of them to really understand it – that thought process was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Parker said.

“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.”

Parker explained that Facebook’s founders and other big players – including himself – were conscious about what they were doing, but this awareness did not prevent them from “exploiting” psychological weakness.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop […] it’s exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he continued. “The inventors, the creators […] all these people understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.".

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

He may have not understood the impact of what he was doing and saying at the time, he added, and could not have predicted the consequences of the network growing to a user base of more than two billion. At this global scale, Facebook “literally changes your relationship with society [and] with each other”.

“It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he said.

A 2015 study carried out at the University of Bergen found that the brain patterns of compulsive Facebook users showed startling similarities to those of substance addicts. Social media networks have frequently come under attack for their potentially negative impact on the mental health of its users.

Meanwhile, Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, has landed further blows on Facebook and other internet giants in a speech to a think tank in Washington. Representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before congressional committees last week to answer questions about Kremlin-backed meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

Senator Franken attacked the powerful internet companies for the control they exert over “so many aspects of our lives”, and argued that severe government regulation could be necessary to keep these tech giants under control with regards to their data collection, role in spreading misinformation and other undesirable content and other aspects of their business practices.

“Last week’s hearings demonstrate that these companies might not be up to the challenge they created for themselves,” he said.

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