How Facebook Broke the Internet and Our Brains

How Facebook Broke the Internet and Our Brains

As Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress last week regarding the breach in Facebook data, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked about the company’s business model.


“We sell ads,” Zuckerberg replied with a smirk that was captured on a video that later went viral.


Smirk aside, Zuckerberg presented a series of responses that were strong enough to settle both shareholders’ and employees’ nerves as FB value rose by a reported $17 billion following the testimony and seemingly calmed the fire on the home front.


Zuckerberg’s answers should not shock anyone. Selling ads is and always has been the Internet’s revenue-generation model. However, unlike traditional media, digital platforms offer a much greater audience reach, breadth and depth of geographic, demographic and behavioral data than can be offered from other sources, such as newspapers, radio and television. Zuckerberg has reiterated on numerous occasions the company doesn’t sell data. The fact is, they don’t have to. We, the users, give our data away for free, because we choose to make digital media a part of our daily lives.


While data breach is a critical issue and Internet advertising needs to be addressed, there is a larger point not covered in the testimony – and poses a far greater threat to the social fabric of our society — than what kind of toothpaste one is likely to buy.


Long before Zuckerberg’s testimony, we had numerous studies that show the detrimental impact to our brains and well-being because of social media. But I would argue it’s not “social or digital media” as a platform that’s the problem; it’s the way we individually and collectively decide to use it.


Digital media isn’t going anywhere and Facebook isn’t a bad platform. Other platforms have cut into its market share, because of the data breach and need for clarity around its data policy, but more likely because Facebook is more of a conversational and dialogue-driven platform than say Instagram, Snapchat or LinkedIn. Human beings are hard-wired to want to connect with each other, hence the popularity of these platforms. It’s the dialogue that causes the damage.


The key – whether it’s Facebook or any other social media platform, is to engage productively. To do that, our dialogues and communication – not only through digital platforms – must meet our individual, and more importantly, audience needs. If we engage in productive dialogue with the audience and meet those needs, the individual and organizational results can be phenomenal. If we don’t, the converse is true.


Let’s take a step back and look at what I mean by needs.


In 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper called, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” where he developed a hierarchy of human needs that if met would result in a motivated person with the ability to thrive. Those needs range from the most basic physiological (safety, security, absence of war) to the more evolved social and self-actualized (love, sense of community, purpose and self-awareness). Maslow’s pyramid has long guided psychologists, individuals and businesses as a way to help people feel motivated, thrive and reach their individual and collective goals. Because Facebook can sometimes operate like an 8th grade cafeteria, the misuse and abuse of the platform can hit us right at the core of those needs, either promoting and/or disrupting our most basic and/or more evolved needs.


If used wisely, Facebook provides a way to connect with family and friends, inspire, provide information of interest, and help someone think, smile and/or promote inclusive community.  Valuing and building on the key needs of the audience – sense of inclusive community, purpose, love — helps the audience thrive, which also scientifically improves cognitive thinking and inspires productive behavior.


Conversely, studies have shown the misuse and abuse of Facebook –from the outrageously fake and hateful to the more insidious and annoying promotion of individual agendas, selfies, passive aggressiveness, negativity and exclusion, contribute to addiction, depression, anxiety, misinformation, false assumptions, bullying, the inability to be present, and perhaps most dangerously, “groupthink” – the practice where people make decisions and gain momentum as a group in a way that discourages creativity and individual responsibility. Basically, not thinking for oneself.


Combine the negative impacts of Facebook with the fact that cognitive scientists and studies also have shown, through recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects information processing, that because we are hard-wired as human beings to survive and protect ourselves against threats– both real and perceived — our brains are more sensitive, remember and accept negative information more readily than positive information.


Therefore, when we consume information we perceive as a threat to our well-being and core needs, either online, at work, or in real life (i.e., creating or reading a negative post, even if it’s about someone we don’t really know, addressing a negative rumor or challenging situation), we have exposed ourselves willingly or not and our brains respond accordingly and poorly. Even if we don’t verbalize that response, this becomes a destruction of our thinking.  As an example, think about how many times you had a negative reaction to a FB post, only to remember it later and re-hash the bad feeling. Offline, think about the time you became upset or concerned about a challenging conversation you had or were due to have with your boss and the angst that occurred, preventing your ability to “think straight.”


Moreover, our brains can only consume so much information we perceive as a threat before our central fight-or-flight response is activated and a breakdown of communication occurs, and to some extent, a breakdown of our brain occurs as well. This fact is exacerbated when people and organizations face vulnerable, high-stress or uncertain situations, such as coming of age, teenage years, a health or business crisis, a death of a family member, divorce, or a job change, loss or business transformation.


In short, our brains are literally exhausted.


The bias around negative information and its impact is not new to the medical community, elected officials, the media and most marketers. Consider the number of political campaigns that have purposefully created a threat to ensure audiences remember and respond as consciously or subconsciously directed. What I’m not sure is – given the strength and breadth of social media – if they are aware of the literal brain damage they are creating on such a massive scale.


The good news? As humans, per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, individuals and organizations are not only hard-wired to survive; we are hard-wired to thrive. To do so, we need to feel valued and our needs must be met. As we look to the pyramid, the more evolved needs must be met for this to happen: love, sense of community, self-actualization. But when that happens, great people thrive and so too do their organizations.


The changing digital landscape, artificial intelligence, and data-driven economies will continue to expand. Technology, data, and AI are all great tools if used in ways to inform and not as sole decision drivers. What we can do as leaders, individuals and organizations is change and improve the way we respond to that data and those evolving platforms.  As evolved organizations and human beings, it is still up to us to act on and apply information in a productive way, by taking control of our own thoughts, dialogues, actions and reactions.


In my next several posts, I will provide examples of individuals, teams and organizations that are productively taking control of this concept and developing dialogue that helps them succeed.


Patty McDonough Kennedy is a global communication consultant with 20+ years of experience in the US, Europe and Africa helping C-level executives, multinational and emerging organizations successfully engage, transform and succeed through smart communication. A TEDx speaker, she has been profiled in Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal and delivered trainings for organizations in 10 countries.  Contact her at