Science & Tech

Facebook Will Break One Way or Another

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
The value of social media falls if they stop providing space for critique of our would-be mandarin class.

Chris Hughes, a former Facebook executive, took to the New York Times to argue for breaking up his former company. Some of the arguments were good. Namely, that Facebook uses its near-monopolistic position in a way that is anti-competitive and hampers progress and user accountability. One of the most novel arguments was that Facebook employees themselves don’t even understand their company’s algorithms for displaying content to Facebook users. And he had some good observations about how regulators might be able to help on privacy issues.

Hughes also made some observations that were useful, but he couldn’t see the full import of them. For instance, he pointed out that Mark Zuckerberg desires more regulation from Washington, more guidance on what he should and shouldn’t allow. But of course this greater level of regulation would have the perverse effect of ensuring Facebook’s dominance; Zuckerberg’s company can afford the lawyers and the compliance costs that go with them. Further, it would shift the burden of governing speech on the platform away from him and toward Washington. He would continue to see his wealth grow, but responsibility for his product would be outsourced to the public.

But the most frustrating part of Hughes’s argument was that, at the beginning and end, his biggest concern for worry was not to see the 2016 election cycle repeated. This has been a major concern both in and outside Facebook, and historian Niall Ferguson was the first to sense how much pressure would come down on Silicon Valley not to be used by conservatives again.

Chris Hughes, Mark Zuckerberg, and so many others in Silicon Valley simply do not understand what they have built. In some ways it is hard to blame them. They were kids. And imagining the political impact of gargantuan social-media enterprises is difficult for adults. But adults with the right education could have given them some clues.

Traditional media such as books and an ecosystem of newspapers are an asset of highly developed institutions, with gatekeepers and embodied forms of judgment. They are also the vehicle by which one class of professionals tries to lead and form public opinion. Mass broadcast media, including radio and TV, were tools that lent themselves toward conformism, as dictators and advertising executives came to understand quickly. Social media, lacking these institutionalized judgments, was always bound to become a rallying point for those resisting the professional classes. The whole point was to build “Web 2.0” platforms in which users generated content for each other. And so social media in fact encourage opinions that run contrary to the mainstream to become socially visible faster. If you were being provocative, you might say that social media create a plane of popular visibility, allowing the previously blindfolded passengers in democracy to exchange grave looks and nods toward the “Let’s roll” attitude in a Flight 93 situation. In short, social media are a vast new territory for the practice of democratic deliberation, which is exactly why to proper liberals they look like a roiling and endless food fight.

Even as it is the vehicle that allows populist opinion to form more quickly, Facebook is not making people more conservative and nationalist. Instead it is allowing the professional class to see, notice, and quantify conservatives and nationalists having discussions and converging in their opinions at a faster rate. And so the anger and blame that is heaped on Facebook for “enabling” conservative and nationalist political victories consists of little else than anger and fear of the voters who happen to use Facebook.

It is impossible not to notice that the controversial privacy-harming techniques and big-data approach used by the Obama 2012 campaign was praised by opinion leaders. But when the same techniques were used on a much smaller scale for Brexit and Donald Trump, they were seen as sinister. And the latter was almost always bound to happen. The largest social-media companies are were always going to attract a proportionally older and therefore more conservative user base. To blame Facebook for “helping” conservatives is little different from blaming a window for revealing the roiling tide on the other side.

I predicted last year that the center-left governments across the West and the professional classes attached to them would not bother too much about the role of Silicon Valley companies in fomenting revolution, chaos, or even repression in the third world, so long as these companies promised to act as protectors against the practice of democracy by conservative and nationalist critics of the liberal political consensus. Because Hughes is no longer invested in the stock price of Facebook, he is free to argue for this protection effort even at the expense of Facebook’s future value. It helps him regain the status he lost in his ownership of The New Republic and the embarrassing political campaigns of his spouse.

But since I made the prediction that Silicon Valley would take the deals on offer — a promise to program users to become more woke, in exchange for a limitless profits license — my thinking has changed slightly. Social media’s value — the Internet’s commercial value — is intensely tied up in its ability to provide a space for critique and open resentment of our would-be mandarin class. The proposition — to act as an ideological enforcer and “opinion leader,” to turn social media into a weaponized and more insidious form of mass-media propaganda — will be a fatal bargain for these companies, and for their patron governments.

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