Those of us who regularly use Facebook should be clear and precise about why we do, because powerful and compelling reasons are emerging to argue why we should not.
For many Facebook users the advantages are obvious: we like to keep in touch with our friends and family, often with real time conversations or texts that would have been unimaginable just over a generation ago. The advantages of this are undeniable, although the comparative difference can be quickly forgotten. There are those who suggest that within some families the desire to be in touch online is replacing the desire to meet in person. The Covid-19 restrictions provide temporarily genuine reasons for this to be valid.
Most of us feel the centripetal force of our need to socialise, to interact with each other in larger groups than our immediate domestic environment. Facebook has cleverly used that force and turned it into a social hub that helps us to create the online society we choose.
Friends and relatives from different places can stay closer in touch than ever before. During the lockdown those who mainly or exclusively use Facebook had good reason to be grateful for its basic customer benefit. Facebook formats needed no amendment or new procedure during the lockdown, the quarantines, and the uncertainties of social distancing. For many the social privations have validated the social connectivity that Facebook and similar applications offer.
Through this free expression of our preferences we have chosen and created our online environments by painting the walls with the scenery of our private world. We therefore feel proprietors of what we inhabit. These environments mostly consist of family, friends and in some cases a few celebrities in whose lives we are interested, and a category of miscellaneous ‘others’ often with similar views, backgrounds or outlooks. This isn’t just an online political and social club, this is a true community bubble. Unique and specific only to each of us, it is an elegant artifice, neither viable nor probable in our ‘real’ life. The pretence (that what we see on our page with us at the centre is broadly what others see) has added considerably to its value.
Facebook is a social innovation affording us an imaginary society that excludes external conditioning factors while offering us a good impression of our free choice outcomes writ large. We have a personal relationship with our Facebook page and we confide in it, with many checking it several times a day like Narcissus at the pool. Somehow our chosen audience seems to return the compliment. And we pay nothing at the point of delivery, a counter-intuitive benefit that frees up the exercise of our choice. For some it must feel like an unexpected miracle of the free market. Everything shows off our choices. We choose what we like before a limited public and get applauded – we exclude or ignore the rest. And these choices – the records that we have put on the Facebook platform – constitute our data. These data are neither private nor even exclusive, but they are ours and they are valuable to us. We see our choices every day when opening the personal page. But others also value them because they make a lot of money out of them. Others again profit from Facebook in a different way: they manipulate its pages and accessibilities to diffuse messages of hatred, racism, and civil conflict in order to serve their political agendas. It is an extraordinary reflection of how extremism has entered our daily lives and screens to state that these people include the President of the United States of America and his supporters.
Facebook’s beginnings at Harvard in Massachusetts, USA in 2004 are extravagantly documented and do not need to be rehearsed. Creating a network of interacting friends is a very old idea – one of the oldest and most obvious of all, especially within particular frameworks, such as company personnel, clubs, universities and alumnae groups. The development of the world wide web changed the scope, and Facebook understood this by assuming a bigger target – the whole world. Facebook recognised, chose, and capitalised on the new global possibilities offered by the internet. It was this insight that provided the basis for its founder Mark Zuckerberg to amass a fortune since then of over $100 billion. But it needed a commercial twist to open the floodgates of money
When Facebook introduced the Like button in 2009, the company created a new currency for the internet that instantly became invested with value, as they had calculated. By then they were essentially an established monopoly in a new market sector that few politicians or commentators properly understood, having made short work of the tired MySpace, which did not long survive Murdoch’s arthritic attempt to keep up with social media trends.
Facebook’s Like button was a sign that Facebook understood the power, the price, and especially the future financial potential of social connectivity. Likes came to drive corporate and campaign decisions. They helped posts spread among groups, as they were copied onto the pages of friends, measuring and multiplying as they went the impact of the message by the relevance of its context. These in turn created influencers, those who gained from publicising everything: love, affection, beneficence and social popularity, as well as hatred, racism, notoriety and celebrity. And who was to judge which of these were preferred while the money was made from all comers?
Clearly, the new data being generated about people’s self-identifications – their likes, loves, dislikes, hatreds, habits, hang-ups, secrets, and beliefs political, religious and philosophical constituted a multi-billion-dollar financial opportunity. There was no way that it would not be accessed and turned into cash. The material collected was and is the most robust, comprehensive and accurate precision marketing data ever created. Facebook realised this well before it fulfilled its own promise. One awkward problem remained: customers all had different and various impressions about their data privacy and most had reasonably accurate assumptions that their data could not directly or individually be accessed without their agreement – thanks to the data privacy principles that have been behind privacy legislation for over a generation.
Against this concern for individual data privacy were ranged those who wished to make money from affording general access. Heading the list were governments and national political parties, global campaigns, and a few global multinational companies. Advertising data purveyors had never seen anything like the quality of the information that was so nearly available. Facebook knew it could had to preserve its golden goose against those who clamoured to pay for it, so after a few well-publicised errors on their trials (for which they immediately gave catholic apologies and were swiftly pardoned) Facebook determined to find a formula that worked for individual data privacy as well as renting it out. The whole story has more than an echo of the history of the Sioux in their sacred Black Hills of Dakota when gold was discovered there. The gold inevitably was extracted and the Sioux were inevitably double-crossed and dispossessed.
After the initial course corrections Facebook finally established a system allowing it to claim that it was not selling the data to anyone. It had decided to become an advertising agency and was selling its knowledge of its own data to its clients. The data would be kept anonymised while it placed the ads for its clients on its own platform and according to its own data. This allowed it to accept large payments from companies, campaigns and individuals anxious to reach certain particular self-chosen sectors of the population from the religious right to the anti-fascist left. It took the money and itself made the optimum ad placings on behalf of the clients, who – theoretically – never saw the detailed data. The early results would be the proof and the early results were of course sensational.
So when you refer in your posts or likes to your creaking bones, your hips or knees or any similar comment, you join the arthritis cohort set up by Facebook and you will quickly receive flash advertising for medicines that work against this (or not) and similar afflictions. If you regularly post sexual content, however naively, you will surely receive advertising related to sex. If you call yourself a patriot, nationalist or a white supremacist, your justification package will swiftly be on its way with material from right wing groups or organizations.
Technically, you don’t receive any of these ads from the advertisers themselves but from Facebook on behalf of the advertiser. Zuckerberg believes that this allows him to claim that customers’ data is not compromised but ‘anonymised’ into a research cohort, allowing individuals within that cohort to receive material directly related to anything they have posted, liked, or commented on.
Facebook made a profit of $4.9 billion in the first three months of 2020, and over 90% of its revenue last year of some $70 billion is generated from the advertising that they alone broker.
Less than 18 months after the introduction of the Like button, Facebook was charged by the FTC for misusing the data that was accumulated. The FTC judgment concluded that Facebook ‘deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly [allowed] it to be shared and made public’. The company signed a consent decree in 2011. Among other promises to the many charges, Facebook agreed not to misrepresent users’ privacy and security settings and always to get user consent before changing the settings.
It is now clear that Facebook broke this promise on several occasions since, the first time as soon as the ink dried on the signature. It allowed the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, advisers to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, to use the personal data of tens of millions of US Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for the purpose of pre-Election advertising right up to mid-2015. The ads were dominated by lies, misrepresentations and hate speech, including photos and videos of political opponents changed to look like they were drunk, drugged or disorderly. Although Zuckerberg insists that Facebook was not paid to allow users to be targeted in this way, this is a lie. Facebook was paid as an ad agency, not as an owner of data, to point their messages at those customers who had revealed their preferences to Facebook’s marketing department through their posts, comments and likes.
In a hearing of the US Congress in October 2019 Zuckerberg was cornered repeatedly and embarrassingly by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Facebook’s response to hate speech and the propagation of lies, especially the political lies that had richly furnished Trump’s campaign in the 2016 Presidential Election. Zuckerberg was reduced to what might be called his moral plimsoll line, that Facebook would not limit hate messages because of the right to free speech and, even less plausibly, because helping to multiply these messages had the benefit of exposing them to public scrutiny in order that they may be sagely countered through the normal democratic process. It was a powerful moment as he made this response, and seemed genuinely surprised at the implicit rejection of what he must have thought were rock-solid answers.
But by then it was probably too late for excuses or recriminations. To loosely quote Mark Twain, the lies had already gone twice around the world while the truth hadn’t managed to put on its shoes. Trump had won the US Presidential Election and 52% of the UK’s voting public had voted to leave the European Union, influenced in large part by the ‘fake news’ spread around those countries by well-funded groups seeking conflict and division around the world by leveraging Facebook, Twitter and other online media to cause instability and confusion.
Is Facebook abiding by its own mission statement to build community and bring the world closer together? President Trump’s continued use of Twitter and Facebook to unfairly influence his followers and others by deception, and racist, abusive and misleading content has only just recently started to be curbed, and then only by a small and almost apologetic margin, and mostly by Twitter. However, most recently Mark Zuckerberg, a close personal friend of Donald Trump, has been unwilling to remove similar misleading content from Trump or other extremists on the Facebook platform, even as Facebook’s rival Twitter has started to take more decisive action.
A coalition of activist groups led a campaign to force Facebook to change its laissez faire policy by asking companies not to advertise on Facebook’s services during July 2020. The Stop Hate for Profit campaign has a list of proposed policy changes that Facebook could implement to reduce the huge amount of abusive and malicious content on its platform. Many of these changes involve including more real humans in the content moderation process instead of using computer programmes to pick up recognisable hate words or phrases. Facebook currently relies heavily on artificial intelligence to flag content that violates its policies – this is of course a lot cheaper than employing people.
The campaign continues to run but seems to have made some notable albeit temporary impact. More than 1,000 businesses and organizations paused advertising on Facebook, including well-known brands such as Adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Body Shop, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Conagra, CVS, Dunkin’ Donuts, Ford, Fossil, Hershey, Honda, HP, Intercontinental Hotels, Smuckers, Lego, Levi’s, Mars, Merck, Merrell, Microsoft, Molson Coors, Mozilla, North Face, Patagonia, Pepsi, Pfizer, Puma, Reebok, Samuel Adams, SAP, Siemens, Starbucks, Target, Unilever, Vans, Verizon, and Volkswagen. Many have continued the pause into August. It is doubtful that the campaign will last much longer, but a significant point has been made.
But what shall we, the innocent onlookers, do as these horrible lies and hate-filled speeches settle and multiply on our screens, debasing our discourse, cheapening our sense of outrage, and distracting us from seeing our Facebook-given right to see our relatives, grandchildren, cats and dogs? The damaging effect on the quality of our discourse is slow but sure, and in both the USA and the UK much of the devastation is already evident as domestic populations have become notably more xenophobic and racist in their public opinions, especially in respect to legal refugees fleeing from the horrors of their countries – horrors which were often inflicted by British, European and American military aggression.
Facebook and other platforms may be messengers and not message-makers in the old fashioned sense that they should not be shot, but in today’s media the medium has created the impact of the message for well over a generation.
It’s complicated, as Facebook used to suggest for the state of our personal relationships, but we can no longer claim that we are unaware of the huge political, social and economic power of this social platform and how it has been made the world a lot worse for many as well as a little better for some.