Facebook Forever

For the last several years, I’ve been mostly absent from Facebook. I posted very rarely and checked it almost never. This wasn’t because of any particular choice so much as a lack of desire. The folks I wanted to check in with, I already text with. Twitter provides me with instant information and plenty of lulz. Facebook’s news feed algorithm is awful, the content it served up was crap, and it’s a scummy company to boot. So I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and did not miss it for a second.

But recently, I’ve begun to slowly re-engage on the platform. A couple of factors have driven this. Penny is a big one – the grandparents love those baby (now, toddler) pics. She’s what kept me on the platform at all. But a bigger driver has been my increasing community involvement. Here’s something I’ve learned in the stage of life I’m in: when you get involved in coordinating communications and activities with a non-trivial number of people, you need some kind of common coordination platform. More often than not, Facebook is that platform now.

Just a few examples of what I mean:

  • Local-level organizing relies on Facebook. I’m involved with a bunch of organizing efforts: our local Democratic Party organization, HOA board elections and a group of folks in anti-racism activism. We’ve got email lists, monthly meetings and more, but what people really engage with is a social space to chat, share news and easily find information. Standing up a whole website for this kind of thing is overkill, but a Facebook Page & Group is perfect.
  • Our local parents group has almost 700 members, and it’s entirely run through a closed FB group. There are more than a dozen posts every day – it’s very popular. School and PTA info, clothing swaps, playdates, questions about everything kid-related – you name it. If you don’t have kids, you might not know this yet, but versions of these groups exist everywhere. “Moms groups” in particular are basically a ubiquitous feature of modern parenthood, and every single one I know is on Facebook (some are on WhatsApp too, though that seems less useful?).
  • A few months ago, I became an Admin for the Elizabeth Warren campaign Facebook group for North Carolina (“NC for Warren”). Like any political campaign, sharing tasks, events, information and news is critical, and our Facebook group really hits the mark for that. There’s no substitute even close to this. The group is doubling in size every month.

I’ve been thinking about this reversal of mine in terms of Facebook’s evolving place in our society, and what limits make sense to place on it. I think it’s time for us to acknowledge that Facebook is becoming – or, probably, has become – a permanent fixture of how our society works. It is just never going away. It is not going to die on the vine like Friendster. Conceivably, Facebook’s many platforms could be eclipsed by competitors (though that would require competition, which Facebook ably prevents), but the nature of social networking it provides itself is here to stay. It’s how information circulates in our society and how we organize our communities.

The end results have positives and negatives, but debating them is sort of beside the point. This is the world now, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. As such, it makes sense that our society should have a renegotiation, as my friend Hassan said, of its power over our society. Facebook isn’t sovereign. The people are. And if Big Tech digs in its heels, maybe we should have a renegotiation over them, too.

Everyone is on Facebook

It has become fashionable in some quarters of tech to dismiss Facebook as a social network. A few people eschew it because they don’t like the company, others because they think it makes them look square, and some (like me, once) just because it doesn’t really offer them anything.

Here’s a reality check: if you fit into one of those first two categories, you are among a tiny niche group that’s basically irrelevant. Most American adults are on Facebook and check it at least once a day. Almost half of Americans find news on the site – far more than any other platform (and dwarfing Twitter). If you don’t get news on Facebook, you’re the weird one.

For almost a decade running, I’ve read sober pronouncements that Facebook was “dead” because of its supposed lack of traction with the teens. Teens, we’re told, don’t even use Facebook anymore, which means that the platform faces certain doom. I don’t pretend to know what teens are doing, but the data shows that many of those 16 year olds who never bothered getting an account in 2012 have done so by the time they’re out of college in 2019. Even if they haven’t, chances are still very good they’re active on another Facebook property like Instagram or WhatsApp. One way or another, they’re almost certainly a known quantity in Facebook’s advertising engine, and the ads they’re shown are personally targeted accordingly.

The crazy pills are online

Following the 2016 election, there was a swell of popular attention on how Facebook affects our elections by systematically altering what information people consume and what they believe.

Of course, Facebook is a half-trillion dollar company because the advertising it shows absolutely influences consumer behavior and everyone knows it. Political campaigns surely do. Political campaigns are going to plow around $3 billion into digital ads in the 2020 election (a little under half of what will be spent on TV). Hostile foreign governments have successfully run political propaganda and culture jamming campaigns against American audiences with the goal of disrupting our political process and sowing general chaos.

Misinformation trickles in through many channels. I know a lot of people who’ve been sucked into all manner of alarming extremism online, often through Facebook: anti-vax, bizarre health fads, reactionary gun rights, it’s a long list. (Some folks I’m close to are very concerned that gay UN shock troops are going to abduct their children any day now.) Often, the path to recruitment goes through innocuous-sounding interest groups that are hijacked by cultists with an agenda, or sometimes, the Facebook algorithm does all the work. People and whole communities are injured as a result.

We all know by now that sampling crazy media content makes algorithms like Facebook’s or YouTube’s serve up yet crazier content still in order to juice those sweet, sweet engagement metrics. Among the many deep-dives into how that process works, this NYT piece on how YouTube’s algorithm sent one young man down the rathole of alt-right extremism is very good. (As a 30-something white man, portals into far-right batshittery follow me around YouTube constantly. Links to Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson are served up no matter what I watch.)

We can’t simply give up these platforms as places to organize, communicate and connect with each other. But the opportunities for recruitment into toxic movements are altogether far too common.

“Don’t ask us”

In the face of everything we know about how social networks have changed how Americans find information and organize ourselves (in areas from politics to those moms groups), Big Tech’s response has been one giant ¯_(ツ)_/¯ .

One favorite argument from the tech sector is that regulation of platforms like Facebook’s are futile, because all such dominance is ephemeral and will soon go away naturally. It’s inevitable that Facebook will be disrupted by a competitor, they insist – so we should just wait for that to happen.

This is nonsense on several levels. Facebook has about 1.6 daily active users in the world and has reached such a scale that simply “going away” is unlikely to ever happen. The company is also aggressively acquisitive, buying out competitors to ensure that whether eyeballs are going to Instagram, WhatsApp or somewhere else, they’ll remain Facebook eyeballs. After the Onavo scandal (which was really outrageous), Facebook continues to take advantage of its wide array of surveillance tools to track trends in user adoption of other social products. Doing so allows it to either acquire or clone competitors before they ever become a real threat. In this scenario, it’s hard to see how real competition can emerge.

Facebook and its apologists frequently say that the company doesn’t want to be in the position of applying its own “judgment and opinions” to speech. Facebook doesn’t want to be a Ministry of Truth. This “do nothing” argument basically allows Facebook to avoid any responsibility at all while cashing advertisers’ checks. The incentive of the “do nothing” strategy is especially attractive when compared with the penalties it faces for the lightest possible policing of their platform. It gets occasional bad press, the odd Congressional hearing and even fines. But these are simply the cost of doing business. (Back in July, the FTC levied a record $5 billion fine against Facebook for the staggering recklessness of their handling of users’ private information. In response, Facebook stock… rose 6%.)

Whether it’s fake users, bots, troll brigades, foreign misinformation campaigns, targeted hate speech or extremist organizing, Facebook has demonstrated that it’s not going to do very much. Make no mistake: it is entirely within the company’s ability to more aggressively police the platform. They make close to $7 billion in profit every quarter. They choose not to do these things because it would cost them money, time and potentially affect the engagement metrics they use to sell advertising.

An important thing to remember is that Facebook is not like traditional companies that our regulatory environment was built to address. Facebook policy is really determined by one man: Mark Zuckerberg. Not shareholders. Wall Street and the SEC permitted dual-class share structures to proliferate, neutering the corporate policy setting power that public shareholders once had. Zuckerberg is not some evil villain – he is just one man with singlehanded control over a chief conduit of information in global society. He is also worth more money than Warren Buffett, which effectively insulates him from public pressure.

That is a breathtaking abdication of control from a democratic society to the whims of one person. And it’s not tenable forever.

The center must hold

Facebook and other social network platforms are permanent fixtures of modern society. Your grandkids will be on them one day (in whatever form they take then).

As a society, we have traded away a good share of our privacy and independence to social networking. Again, there are positives and negatives to this, but they’re mostly beside the point now. The question is, how do we let the positives grow, and discourage the negatives?

Facebook, in particular, is a tremendously profitable and successful company. Perhaps they should also be a boring one, more akin to a utility than a “move fast and break things” kind of firm. Their acquisitions should be met with regulatory skepticism; their advertising duopoly with Google met with scrutiny. Facebook singlehandedly wiped whole media and journalism businesses off the map because of sloppy errors – perhaps they should be held to account.

On an individual level, we have to provide in law for some level of control over one’s information – not as a “user,” but as a person. The EU’s data protection regime is a strong move in that very direction. We need a right to be forgotten and the right to have some form of redress when one’s information is misused for private gain.

And as a society, we’ll need to adapt too, just like we have with every technological shift. We need to get smarter about identifying clickbait and misinformation (though social platforms have a role in that too). We need to learn to adjust our judgment to the speed of the digital news cycle and probably acquire some savviness about how we interact with others on the internet who sound like friends, but are really strangers. In short, we need to learn to coexist with Facebook. Because Facebook will be with us forever.

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