My dog showed me how Facebook could be better

Social media is toxic and the web is full of trolls – but there are corners of the internet that aren’t so bad

After adopting a dog, there was a lot I expected to change about my life — more walks and a messier house — but I didn’t expect a rescue pooch to fix Facebook

Facebook and other social media are toxic messes, boosting the spread of misinformation, sowing political and cultural divisions, and making us feel worse about ourselves. Regulators should step in and we’d all be smarter for opting out. But in the meantime, having a dog has made Facebook kinder and more useful to me. 

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I don’t really use the social network, but I maintain an account because so many of my Canadian friends and family do. That means that when I do log in, I get to see cute pics of childhood friends’ children, but also have to wade through the unwanted political opinions of my dad’s friends or my friends’ dads. 

Unfollowing people helps shape Facebook into the cheerful filter bubble I’d like it to be, but last year I found a new use for the site. My husband and I decided to adopt a dog, but the big-name rescues had long waiting lists and weren’t keen on homes without gardens; we live in a flat in London, so were last in the queue. Idly, I searched Facebook to see if there was a smaller agency we might have more luck with, and found one because a friend had liked it – the algorithm works for more than spreading fake news, it would seem. 

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A few months later, we picked up our fluffy little dog. While she’s had a huge impact on our lives – it’s hard to get work done when she’s in need of cuddles – she’s also changed my use of Facebook. As the rescue organisation we used has been the target of trolls, it has a private page for adopters only, where we can ask for advice without the judgement of the open web. 

And it’s a very active group. When I open Facebook now, the algorithm fills my feed not with baby pics or political whinging, but photo after photo of adorable dogs. That’s already a marked improvement, but there’s more. The comments aren’t angry and combative, like the rest of the web. Instead, the group is welcoming and supportive. Have a behavioural challenge with your four-legged friend? Ask for advice. Found a great dog-friendly park? Share it. Need some cheering up? Request funny dog photos and you’ll get dozens.

Of course, you don’t need a dog to transform social media into a warm bubble. You can unfollow or mute those you’d rather ignore, follow people or pages that bring you joy, and set your accounts to private to avoid trolls or bullying bots. While Facebook’s default mode is apparently set to destroy humanity – or maybe it just feels that way – it can take effort to make it a force for personal good, but it’s worth the time. 

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Indeed, despite my journalistically covering social media and its impact for the past decade or so, Facebook has plenty of moderation tools I didn’t know existed. One page I joined isn’t so much a group as an e-learning platform. Before being able to access the page, you need to read through and agree to the rules; they include “be kind” and “no garish GIFs or backgrounds” — imagine that rule applied across the wider web. 

Comments asking for advice can only be posted at specific times and are moderated by the experts who run the group. If you ask for advice but admit to something that may get you criticised by opinionated dog owners, they’ll help you out via private message instead to avoid any abuse. And all posts must begin with which of the 18 “units” you’ve read. They range from basics to advanced behavioural topics, and conclude with quizzes. The people who run the group can see if you’ve read the unit.

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Imagine if this were applied more widely. The web would be nicer for me if someone couldn’t comment on an article they hadn’t actually read, or if they had to lay out their background reading before sharing an opinion. Indeed, the group all but bans opinion – instead of anecdotal advice, they only offer steps known to work based on their expertise. 

It’s heaven. When the web first started out, the goal was sharing real information. That’s rotted away under the weight of marketing, propaganda and other misinformation. Now, the web is as likely to confuse as inform. But there are places, hidden though they may be, that are different. It’s a glimpse into the world that could have been, a web that educated users and social networks that improved access to experts, rather than the contrary. 

Facebook has the tools to fix itself. If only it took such care with politics and health, rather than just how to get our fluffy new friend walking nicely on the lead

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