This Wednesday, Ernie Smith, a writer and chronicler of Internet culture, was surprised to log on to Facebook and find the social network wishing him a happy new year. A colorful banner appeared on his feed, featuring a hand dipping a slice of apple into a jar of honey along with a cheerful Rosh Hashanah greeting “from all of us at Facebook.” There’s only one problem: Smith isn’t Jewish.
And he isn’t alone. Many other non-Jews received the same greeting last week, leading some to ask the obvious question: How does Facebook know who’s a Jew?
Some users, of course, indicate their religion on their profile, but from a random survey of my Facebook friends, most do not. What, then, does the social network have to go on?
“We send messages about religious moments to people in countries where a large proportion of the population observes the religion, or where the religious date is a public holiday,” a Facebook representative told Mashable in an email. “We may also show the message to people who’ve expressed interest in the holiday.”
It’s a weak response, especially from a company that, just last week, got into hot water for enabling advertisers to reach “Jew Haters” who have expressed an interest in such lively topics as “how to burn Jews.” I mean, what could possibly go wrong by Facebook compiling a list of Jews it could then sell to anyone who, for whatever reason, is really interested in targeting Jews?
Add to that the recent discovery that the Kremlin successfully seeded Facebook with thousands of political ads during the last election, and you begin to understand that the threat Facebook poses to American democracy and civic life is real considerable. In an effort to put out the recent fires, the company’s chiefs rushed forth with a host of suggestion. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, proposed a nine-step plan to “protect election integrity,” and Sheryl Sandberg, referring to the anti-Jewish ad fiasco, called the affair “a fail on our part.”
But it isn’t a fail: It’s a feature. As Zeynep Tufekci noted in The New York Times, “anyone who understands how Facebook works shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s because the same digital platform that offers us social interaction, news, entertainment and shopping all in one place makes its money by making it cheap and easy to send us commercial or political messages, often guided by algorithms. The recent scandal is just a reminder. Almost every feature on Facebook is designed to make the site engaging — to encourage you to spend time there while Facebook serves more ads to you. At the same time, users can share “promoted posts” — targeted messages that advertisers pay Facebook to place in their feeds — merging pay-for-play content with the natural flow of information among friends and family. It’s a powerful combination.”
In light of the gravity of Facebook’s recent failures, sending Rosh Hashanah greetings to a few wrong recipients may not seem like that big of a deal. But it’s a needed reminder that Facebook—like Google, Apple, and Amazon—has grown so ubiquitous and possesses so much data that we can no longer effectively command our experiences on the platform. We may choose to keep our faith private, say, but the algorithm may still opt to out us to whoever is willing to pay. And that’s a very big problem.
“We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way – and that is on us,” Sandberg wrote in her message earlier this month. “And we did not find it ourselves – and that is also on us.” It shouldn’t be. Power of the sort Facebook now holds must be checked by anyone from its users to the federal government. There’s no greater menace facing all Americans, but Jews in particular, today.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.