This post was originally published on The Federalist.
Earlier this year, Facebook hit a new, absolutely dizzying milestone: 2 billion monthly active users. One would expect the key term from that sentence to be “2 billion,” but actually it’s “active.” Sixty-six percent use it daily.
Facebook’s biggest rival for logged-in use, YouTube, is the only social app out of the entire top five that is not owned by Facebook—WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram are all Facebook properties. As a result, Facebook is the fifth most valuable company in the world at $500 billion in market capitalization.
What about Facebook makes it so indispensable to us? What vital contribution is it making to the billions who regularly use it? It connects them. The concept of acquaintance has naturally expanded to accommodate what Facebook and other social media have enabled: continual awareness of what those not-quite-friends of yours are doing. But why assume connectedness is a good thing?
Your Assumptions Are Wrong
Not long ago, Facebook tweaked its mission statement. Of course, mission statements are anodyne and almost provocatively uninteresting. But the alteration of a mission statement could present a portal into a company’s thinking.
Facebook’s mission statement used to be: “making the world more open and connected.” It then became: “[to] give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” John Lanchester, in his remarkable essay for the London Review of Books entitled “You Are The Product,” thinks Mark Zuckerberg must have realized the former iteration doesn’t explain why anyone should think connectedness is a good thing.
If the contributions of connectedness include livestreamed murders, epistemic bubbles, and the ascension of Donald Trump, why should anything see connectedness as an intrinsically positive thing?
Both mission statements are comically misleading. That’s because there exists a remarkable disparity between Facebook’s stated mission and its actual mission. Facebook claims to be doing what it does to “build community” and “bring the world closer together.” Yet its actual mission is maximal monetization by exploiting their users through monopolistic surveillance efficacy. Lanchester’s characterization is terrifying:
Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.
There is no need to split hairs: Facebook is an advertising company that surveils in order to advertise effectively. Notice that whichever activity is seen as the primary one—advertising or surveillance — one thing is clear: Facebook is not is a social media platform altruistically concerned with global integration. Like any other company, Facebook has customers. Yet its customers aren’t its users; its customers are advertisers. You and I are the product it sells them.
The More You Facebook, the More Facebook Knows
Yet calling Facebook an advertising company doesn’t convey its sprawling reach over users’ lives. Facebook discovered the same architecture capable of connecting so many could furnish the company an untapped, and unrivaled, information source on those same users. (If you wanted to, say, target thirty-something Americans who are Pumpkin Spice Latte drinkers, Facebook gives you a way to reach all three of them.)
But it underwent a second shift that raised its monetization prospects. Facebook also designed ways and struck partnerships to vacuum information about your non-Facebook Internet activity and even your offline activity. Facebook partnered with companies that monitor, accumulate, and integrate data on your credit card purchases and offline behavior in order to seamlessly build a comprehensive profile far more attractive to advertisers than what any other company, save for maybe Google, is capable of offering.
Still, its main mode of capturing information is your activity on its platform. To do this well, it needs you to spend as much time as possible on Facebook. To get you to do that, it needs to enable the sort of communal features that incentivize total immersion. If Facebook builds a place where individuals can gather to share memes and articles that reflect and reinforce group beliefs, it will increase the likelihood that people inside the group will seek to spend their time there.
It’s the PR that Matters, Not the Reality
This is why Facebook never cared about fake news but only feigned indignation when it became a public relations problem. There’s a reason fake news was, and remains, a problem for society at large: it is effective precisely because it exploits our psychological inclination toward having our biases confirmed. From Facebook’s perspective, this makes it more valuable than measured commentary, so long as the uproar over it doesn’t cross a threshold of commercial liability.
More will share “The FBI Just Seized Hillary’s Campaign Jet With One Neat Trick” than “Professor Willywiggle’s Nuanced Theory of Elections.” Facebook understands this human tendency extremely well, and put itself in fantastic position to capitalize from it. Rather than use its great power to harness those better angels of our nature that Abraham Lincoln spoke of, it played to our basest impulses.
That’s fine. Companies aren’t obligated to subordinate their commercial interests to promoting civic values. But neither should they be able to get way with projecting themselves as quasi-charitable institutions motivated by the civic imperatives capable of gloriously transforming our world.
In the wake of the election, when the PR fallout was sufficiently damaging, Facebook pivoted to Very Concerned mode. After a round of shameful denials of responsibility, Zuckerberg experienced an inward turn. He became very worried, and, hoping that you’d notice just how worried he became, decided to explore ways to combat the flood of disinformation his site had implicitly welcomed prior to the election.
He invited the same media entities whose viability his algorithm had rapaciously imperiled to discuss strategy. The narrative was that Facebook’s role in the spread of fake news came to really affect Zuckerberg. Please. What affected Zuck was people blaming Facebook and coming to see it as inimical to our national politics.
Greater Public Knowledge Can Spur Action
Lanchester suggests the biggest threat to Facebook is user disaffection. Although he devotes space to the possibility that users could grow unhappy with Facebook and collectively abandon it, another form of “user disaffection” doesn’t necessarily manifest as a displeasure with Facebook qua product.
This second possibility is more fruitful than the first, since Facebook’s “utility” as a platform is beyond serious challenge. Perhaps users discover en masse the frightening scope and scale of Facebook’s surveillance activity and decide to defect. Even more than their European counterparts, Americans have exhibited a formidable disinclination to sweeping surveillance and monitoring initiatives that are far less invasive than what Facebook does. If every single Facebook user became well apprised of their advertising interests and surveillance activity, many would likely deactivate their accounts.
Would that be so awful? Facebook, as currently configured, is a plague on our society. Its ongoing existence threatens the broad acceptability of the intellectual norms a republic should strive for. Its footprint within digital news and opinion, an industry still entirely tethered to an advertising model of revenue generation, is totalizing.
Disruption is good when it leads to better products, solutions, technologies. The Internet’s disruption of print media is a good thing since it augmented the “product” in a variety of appreciable ways. Disruption is not so good when it fails to advance the field.
For journalism, Facebook and Google’s advertising duopoly is a case of disruption in the wrong direction. Media organizations used to use advertising money to fund the journalism its editorial staff would find worthwhile. With that money diverted to Facebook, there exist significant funding gaps for the kind of journalism that, while far from being the most clicked on, is nevertheless the most needed.
The point isn’t that these sorts of companies should refrain from chasing a profit. But the particular way in which Facebook is doing it, and the hiddenness of these underlying activities, which drive and direct everything on the site, is what is most worrisome about Facebook’s approach in particular. Here’s to the right kind of disruption coming along and making social media far less of an invasive presence in our lives.
This post was originally published on The Federalist.