The social-media giant’s reach and power are unprecedented.
By Micah L. Sifry OCTOBER 12, 2017
On June 27, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, announced that “the Facebook community is now officially 2 billion people!” It took the platform a little more than eight years to reach 1 billion users, and then less than five years to reach the second billion. Close to two-thirds of users visit the site at least once a day. There is no other human entity on earth as big as Facebook—no country, no business, no single religious denomination.
Once it was said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In our digital age, coders are the unacknowledged legislators, determining the rules and pathways that we use to connect with one another. And one coder, Zuckerberg, is the unacknowledged president of the largest nation on earth, which I call Facebookistan.
Because Zuckerberg has hired two buckraking campaign operatives, David Plouffe and Ken Mehlman, to advise him, and because he’s been traveling around America on a “listening tour,” many have speculated that he is planning to run for president of the United States. But this is using a 20th-century lens to look at a 21st-century phenomenon. As someone who zealously protects his own privacy, Zuckerberg would never submit to the rituals of an American presidential campaign. Besides, with two-thirds of American adults on Facebook, and with 43 percent saying that online social networks are where they often get their news, Zuckerberg already has all the power he needs. In Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the European Union, Ecuador, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, and Vietnam, Facebook is the dominant online social network, with anywhere from 40 to 90 percent of the local population using it. Like the Lawnmower Man, a fictional character who defeats his adversaries by uploading his consciousness to the world’s computer networks, Zuck’s reach extends far beyond our humble borders.
It’s much more likely that Zuckerberg has gone on the road to contain the fallout from the ongoing investigations into Facebook’s role in the 2016 election and the myriad questions they raise. We now know, from research published by the company’s own data scientists, that Facebook has the power to alter its users’ moods merely by changing how many positive or negative posts it surfaces in their feeds. We also know that it can increase voter registration by reminding people of upcoming deadlines, and it can increase voter turnout by showing people that their friends are voting—a tool that Facebook calls its “voter megaphone.” We know that it can and has tweaked the News Feed algorithm many times. For example, in 2012 it decided to add more “hard news” to the mix (with a list of supposedly acceptable news sources ranging from Mother Jones to RushLimbaugh.com) after discovering that doing so didn’t turn users off. Now there are suspicions that another change to the algorithm may be hurting traffic to left-wing news sites.
We have to trust Facebook when its spokespeople say they are not abusing these powers to the benefit of any partisan cause. While the company has tried to downplay its ability to influence political choices, internal documents obtained by The Australian revealed that Facebook routinely tells advertisers that it knows exactly which buttons they should press to sell their products to impressionable young people. We should assume the same is true for other audiences. Don’t forget, dear reader, especially if—as is more than likely—you are reading this article on Facebook right now: You are not Facebook’s customer; you are its product. Facebook’s only true constituency is its millions of advertisers.
Indeed, it is becoming more clear with each passing day that operatives tied to Russia used Facebook to insinuate themselves into the 2016 election, by creating fake accounts and group pages, pumping up false news stories, and targeting tens of millions of users with ads designed to sow division and affect their inclination to vote. Because Facebook’s algorithms are tuned to optimize “engagement,” meaning the amount of time its users spend on the site, such inflammatory content was catnip. But the Russia-Trump connection is not the central question to focus on when it comes to Facebook’s power; it’s just the tipping point that is causing many people to pay attention at last.
You can’t solve a problem if you can’t even name it, and we’re just beginning to find words to adequately describe the issues raised by Facebook and other dominant tech platforms like Google and Amazon. In a very important article in The Yale Law Journal, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” Lina Khan of the Open Markets Institute notes that, while Amazon has lowered prices for consumers across many market categories, it has also abused its monopoly power in numerous ways. For example, it has mined internal data on the usage of its Amazon Web Services platform to figure out which tech start-ups were taking off and thus gain an insider’s advantage on investment decisions. It has also created copycat products under the AmazonBasics label to directly compete with outside retailers by using internal data about the best-selling products on the site. Third-party sellers who use Amazon’s delivery service do better in search results. Likewise, Google has used its dominant position as the main place that people go to search for information to sometimes favor its own content, such as travel-booking services and restaurant recommendations.
Since Facebook is currently a de facto social utility, it’s tempting to propose that it be regulated, perhaps in a manner similar to the ways that the government has regulated telecommunications companies. For example, as Harold Feld of Public Knowledge has argued, Facebook could be required to show that it is not discriminating against particular classes of users or individuals when it comes to who it allows on the platform or how they’re permitted to use it. Thus, when Facebook fires up its voter megaphone, the company could be required to show technical auditors that it is indeed being used in a neutral way. Likewise, when Google or Amazon exploit their market dominance in Web searches to privilege their own products, an antitrust case could be made that they’re unfairly rigging the marketplace.
It’s hard to see where the political will to explore these sorts of remedies is going to come from. Most of my liberal friends, confronted by the evidence that Facebook was used to meddle in the election, still can’t find the energy to quit or stop using the platform. Online organizers, who arguably have more awareness of the problems with Facebook, are equally committed to sticking with it, because “that’s where the people are.” To imagine fixing the democracy-distorting effects of Facebook’s power, you have to be able to see beyond its boundaries, to a world where how we learn, play, and socialize isn’t structured by the Lawnmower Man and surveillance capitalism. And I fear that our ability to imagine that world is rapidly fading.