Paul Tims, our regular Culture Punch columnist, sums up the problems with Facebook and calls for an end to private ownership of such an important means of human communication
I think it’s fair to say that Facebook is now a ubiquitous means of communication. In the western world, it’s used as widely as phone calls or emails. It’s used to contact business associates, friends, family members, sexually alluring strangers, people you met once at a party and completely failed to connect with - and the occasional hitman. Okay, probably not that last one. The point is that Facebook has, since its inception, grown into one of the most widely-accepted communication platforms in the world. Which would be fine, if it was completely neutral, like an email service, a telephone network or a carrier pigeon. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Facebook has an agenda.
The term ‘agenda’ tends to get thrown around a lot in political discussions, usually in rather vague ways designed to make the accused party sound as sinister as possible. I’m talking about a set of specific biases and preoccupations that have the net effect of turning Facebook into a site that favours a right-wing status quo. The main function of this article will be to examine some of Facebook’s most obvious and pernicious biases, explain them, and propose what to me is the blindingly obvious remedy of ensuring the common good by taking such companies into some form of common ownership.
The most explicit and easily-demonstrated example of Facebook bias dates back to 2011, when the site deleted, on mass, hundreds of anti-monarchist profile pages. The official reason was that the pages didn’t comply with some of the site’s minor rules. For example, because they were pages devoted to a cause rather than to individuals, the profiles didn’t show the owners’ real names. This excuse doesn’t, however, hold a great deal of water. The pages had been ignored by Facebook until 2011. They were deleted just in time for the royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Facebook waited until the exact point when the anti-monarchist, anti-establishment message would have been most relevant, and then abused its position as a communications platform to cripple that message. You can read both sides of the story here. To my mind, the timing is deeply suspicious... in much the same way that a dog sitting beside a large pile of dog crap on a recently-cleaned living room carpet is deeply suspicious. There might be several explanations for the state of affairs, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is most likely.
More recently, Facebook has allowed itself to become a platform for the far right to spread disinformation. Because Facebook is used as a media outlet by various content creators, one might think that the platform has a responsibility to police lies, threats and disinformation spread on its platform. It does… it just doesn’t act on that responsibility, at least not in the case of right-wing output. According to this article on Crooked.com, the website’s algorithms don’t differentiate between legitimate political analysis and far-right propaganda content such as ‘Infowars’ (if you haven’t heard of Infowars, it’s a lunatic, neoconservative web-series thingy that specialises in the kind of conspiracy theories that would make David Icke raise a dubious eyebrow).
Despite containing outright lies and threats of violence against leftist politicians, Infowars' video and textual content isn’t restricted by Facebook and is presented alongside less deranged political pages. One might assume that this is simply Facebook enacting perfect neutrality by not interfering with the content it is used to distribute. However, the same hands-off approach doesn’t seem to apply to more left-leaning output. For example, a Pod Saves America video posted on Facebook was recently flagged and given an 18+ rating. It contained no threats of violence, no aggression, no actual disinformation: it was a pretty dry analysis of an investigation into some political misconduct by the Russian state. On Facebook, you have to be over 18 to watch a potentially educational political video. However, impressionable youngsters can watch the abusive, violent crypto-fascist ravings of Alex Jones. I think that seems a little unbalanced.
However, the most spectacular and irrefutable piece of evidence against Facebook is its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For those of you who don’t remember the scandal, here’s a quick recap: in 2014, Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from literally millions of Facebook profiles to create software that could analyse voters and influence decisions at the ballot box. The software was used to aid Trump’s electoral campaign in the US and the predominantly right-wing (and very racist) pro-Brexit campaign here in the UK. You can find a detailed summary of what happened here. The point is that Facebook allowed this to happen. Over 50 million profiles were malappropriated by election-rigging rightist software sociopaths, and the platform did the square root of bugger all to stop it. I’d go so far as to say that it was cheerfully complicit in Cambridge Analytica’s activity.
But what does it all mean? We’ve established that Facebook has a monarchist bias, a Trump-y bias and (possibly) a pro-Brexit bias, but why has the platform allied itself with these random pieces of rightist ideology? Facebook is still run, more or less, by Mark Zuckerberg, and we may never know what goes on in that dude’s head. He is, after all, a mumbly pseud with a seemingly infinite capacity for talking bollocks without offering the slightest whiff of insight. The same guy who played him in The Social Network recently played colourful comic-book sociopath Lex Luthor and I think it’s telling that the latter was vastly more sympathetic.
However, even though we can’t penetrate the cloud of self-aggrandising Silicone Valley guff that wafts from Zuckerberg’s every pore, we can come up with an explanation using my all-time favourite philosophical tool: Occam’s Razor! All other factors being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that Facebook is a business first - an advertising paltform - and a communications platform second. Businesses like the British monarchy because they attract weepy, gurning monarchists with disposable incomes and a lot of time on their hands… time that can, for instance, be used gawping at Facebook and the adverts that appear thereon. Businesses like Trump because he’s totally okay with them paying almost no tax and exploiting their workers. Tech businesses such as Facebook even like Brexit, because it means they won’t have to worry about enforcing the EU’s online copyright laws.
The fact of the matter is that one doesn’t have to look very far to uncover the rationale behind Facebook’s multifarious biases: profit. The company is simply doing what all companies do: maximising its profit margins and baulking against legislative threats. It’s an obvious truth, but we tend to forget it far too often: all corporations are inherently selfish institutions, and Facebook is no exception. It’s agenda is nothing more grand or impressive than the grubby pursuit of money and users. Capitalist companies are under a fiduciary duty to maximise the returns to the shareholders who own and invest in the company. it would be against the rules of the game for Facebook to pursue the common good rather than the good of the small number of rich and powerful shareholders that own it.
So, Facebook is obliged by the capitalist system to pursue profit. I suspect that this factoid surprises precisely nobody. But can Facebook be redeemed? To answer that question, let’s take a look at a related scandal that broke in the news recently.
As some of you may be aware, Instagram is on the verge of integrating with Facebook so that the two platforms can trade data more effectively. Unfortunately, it also may have killed a few teenagers. Instagram has been accused of hosting content that actively encourages self-harm and suicide. You can read the cold, hard facts (and some heartbreaking testimonials from parents) here. Of course, we can’t expect platforms with literally millions of users to check every single piece of content that they host, and there’s no legislating for the random malice and psychosis of web-users themselves.
However, Instagram seems to have made almost zero effort to control content with self-harm and suicidal imagery (which is detectable by algorithm, in case you were wondering). What’s more, it’s worth remembering that Instagram, like Facebook, has algorithms that are designed to harvest information about its users and then throw them content that it thinks they’re likely to click on. These algorithms obviously aren’t specifically designed to show suicidal teens suicide-encouraging content, but Instagram doesn’t seem to care that it’s a likely side-effect. Its business model as an online advertising platform requires it to seek and keep the attention of the maximum number of potential consumers - how it does that is of secondary importance.
Like Facebook, Instagram is motivated by profit and that’s what the blind pursuit of profit does: it turns companies into slathering monsters quite willing to create hillocks of self-mutilated corpses, just so long as the corpses can be monetized first.
What is to be done?
How do we apply the principles of cultiural democracy - shared ownership and democratic management - to Facebook? There are several things that could be done, preferably by an incoming Labour government. Although the company is based in the US, it still has to maintain servers in the UK. There’s no reason why executive-level Facebook employees in Britain shouldn’t face charges for their complicity in the platform’s manipulation of the political landscape. After all, Facebook has influenced elections and referendums while pretending to be neutral: at the very least, it’s committed consumer rights offences by not being upfront about its biases.
Some legal action has already occurred surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but a more generalised case could and should be made against the site’s malpractice. It would also be useful to introduce new laws that specifically pertain to the neutrality of online communications platforms. You’d be shocked if your telephone company started cutting off your calls because you expressed a political preference for Jeremy Corbyn or socialism, yet it seems that online communications networks can cheerfully censor some content while promoting other bits. At present, this behaviour is legally dubious, but new, clearer laws could make it completely and unequivocally illegal.
Of course, these legal steps are half-measures. If we want to maximise the common good, why not take Facebook into some form of social, common ownership? With democratic management by our elected representatives? I don’t mean broken up into smaller platforms, or more heavily regulated: I mean actually, completely owned and managed by us - see here.
Alternatively, an incoming Labour government could close down Facebook's operations in the UK, and create publicly-owned online multimedia communications platforms. Sites like Facebook are immensely profitable, partly because of their advertising revenue and partly because of their ability to harvest and monetise data. You can read a Marxist analysis of how such sites turn data-surveillance into profit here. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that revenue went into, say, our diminishing Welfare State - education, housing or the NHS? Plus, deciding what data to keep, what content to show and how to manage to political pages would be a job for public servants with a remit to protect users, not profiteering sociopaths.
Taking Facebook - and Google, Amazon, and Twitter - into public ownership, or simply closing them down and creating or adopting publicly-owned equivalents, could also encourager les autres, as they say. It could show the world the benefits of socially owned enterprises and be a major plank of a comprehensive programme of cultural democracy by an incoming Labour government. It could be the flagship of a fleet of detailed policy measures designed to reclaim the cultural commons - to take back into common ownership all of our culture around communication, the arts, sports, and all the other activities and practices which give us enjoyment, promote our happiness and well-being, and help us flourish as human beings.