Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

The Great Facebook Panic

A protester holds an European Union flag next to cardboard cutouts depicting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a demonstration ahead of a meeting between Zuckerberg and leaders of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 22, 2018. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
Beware the virtuous arbiters of taste

In the summer of 2016, I deleted my Facebook account.

I was in England, covering the “Brexit” referendum, and the result had just come in — the correct result, in my view. Curious to find out what my friends thought of what had been a considerable shock to the system, I logged on and started scrolling. I immediately regretted it. The scene before me resembled the cafeteria fight from Animal House. Every one of man’s worst instincts was on display: whining, crowing, the erection of scraggy straw men, apocalyptic hyperbole, unnecessary provocation — you name it. Apropos of nothing, people I’d known for years were berating me and calling me peculiar names. “I hope you’re happy,” one old schoolfriend said, “that the country has been ruined.”

In one sense, the habits that Facebook engenders are worse than those developed by Twitter. As a rule, Twitter is more rhetorically brutal. It is more prone to the vicissitudes of the mob. And, because trolls don’t need to befriend you to scream at you, it serves as a more effective conduit for the angry to spew their venom. But on Facebook, the other users are your friends. They are your family. If @CrushKittens983CA insults you and calls you a moron, so be it. If your high-school buddy does, that’s different. And so, balking at the prospect of a UFC tournament with my graduating class, I decided to extricate myself from the melee. How peculiar it is that the Internet was sold as a uniting, educational, positive force but in practice has become just another weapon.

Had I stayed, I subsequently learned, I’d have been in for a treat, for it was at about this time in our history that the Great Facebook Panic began. Facebook, if you haven’t heard, has been deemed of late to be almost omnipotent. It can swing presidential elections or national referenda that go the “wrong” way. Its data, when used by anyone other than Barack Obama and his team, represent a threat to our societal fabric. And, worst of all, it has destroyed the widespread political understanding and reflexive aversion to rumor for which the United States was famous before the summer of 2004. Facebook, it seems, is Bad News.

It is almost banal to observe in earnest that the site hosts a lot of bad behavior. But it is downright myopic to blame Facebook, rather than people, for that. Facebook is not the cause of human deficiency, but the means by which it is now most obviously expressed. Facebook is a medium, not a message, and it is not at all clear that those who use it to spread lies, advance agendas, or bully the sacred and the innocent are any more efficacious — or any more pernicious — than were their drearily analog ancestors. It is undoubtedly true that Facebook can host and disseminate nonsense at a hitherto unthinkable rate (although that was true at one point of the printing press and the telephone) and true, too, that its customizable social groups and almost total absence of gatekeepers can serve to incubate dishonesty and fluff. But the opposite arrangement — say, the highly curated and almost universally consumed television news shows of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — could do exactly the same thing, and without offering the dissenters a platform from which to object. It is hard to avoid detecting the whiff of frustration in the voices of the loudest cavilers. “They are out there talking,” they seem to say. “And nobody is stopping them!”

Which brings us, ineluctably, to Russia, the largest concern behind the scare. I must confess to being tired of the word. Of late, almost everything imaginable has been blamed on Vladimir Putin, to the extent that “It was Russia” has become a punchline — the political equivalent of “The dog ate my homework.” Just as many progressives say “the NRA” when they really mean “gun owners,” so have this president’s critics taken to saying “Russia” when they mean “voters.” The oddest manifestation of this tendency has been the insistence that groups associated with the Russian government “hacked the election,” by which the speaker means not that the FSB changed the vote tallies or physically stopped Americans from getting to the polls or quietly amended the borders of Wisconsin, but that Russia spent a small amount of money writing things on Facebook that some voters subsequently read. As far as I can tell, the argument is that the Russians worked out exactly how to divide Americans politically and set about starting arguments on the Internet that were designed to discourage or encourage voters to support a given candidate. To which I would say, “So the Russians did the same thing as did the Republican and Democratic parties?” Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier diligently read through all of the ads that Russia put on the service and concluded that “Russia was aiming to exploit the fault lines in American society — gun control, race relations, immigration — and get people angry on both sides. Paying to promote rallies both pro- and anti-Trump.” Well . . . gosh, whatever would the 2016 election have been like without that?

The charge that the Russians’ contributions were different because they constituted “foreign interference” is an important one. And, without falling prey to panic or hyperbole, Facebook should address it. But quite where the line is in the social-media age remains unclear. What counts as interference, one wonders? The Russians’ spending a million dollars on Facebook ads designed to troll Democrats? A French celebrity with tens of millions of followers saying, “Vote for Kamala Harris”? An international advocacy group publishing a report designed to influence the U.S. gun debate? Are these examples of “hacking politics”? And if so, what does “hacking” mean other than trying to persuade in public? Does the speaker’s intent matter, or do the consequences of his speaking? How much can we regulate without making windows into men’s souls? Once again: To drill down into the matter is to gain a suspicion that the consternation is, more than anything else, the product of a loss of messaging control.

Insofar as there is a problem with Facebook, it is that it is run by amoral busybodies who have proven themselves susceptible to precisely the sort of selective centralizations that we were told the Internet would help avoid. Cowed by the purveyors of fads, and marinated in what Mark Zuckerberg openly describes as a “left-leaning” culture, Facebook has bought into expansive concepts such as “fake news” (the term was originally used by progressives before Donald Trump hijacked it) and “hate speech,” and is on the road toward agreeing to purge anything that contravenes today’s definitions of either. It would require extraordinary naïveté — or a willfully blinkered worldview — to fail to predict what this will mean in practice. Presumably, it cannot be long before political speech related to guns, abortion, immigration, race, transgenderism, and so forth comes under fire. And, if our current panic continues, it seems plausible that any less-than-professional advocacy for the president will be reflexively regarded as suspicious.

We have recently been provided with a preview of the brave new world to come. At present, Ireland is debating whether to remove from its constitution a provision that prohibits abortion — and by all accounts the polls are tightening as the day of the referendum approaches. Amazingly enough, just as the debate began to hot up, Facebook announced that it would be running no more foreign advertisements on the topic. This, the company explained, was to protect the “integrity” of Irish democracy and to ensure that the company did not inadvertently affect the outcome — which, of course, it will have done in some way by taking this decision, just as it would have by not taking this decision.

Whether you believe Facebook’s explanation of its motives will depend on how much you trust Facebook. Either way, it seems likely that the company’s inevitably selective attempts to “stay out of elections” will grow as the years go by and the resentment increases. Will this be a good thing? I doubt it. Given the long history of top-down censorship, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that taking a razor to the conversation will yield better outcomes than would leaving it well alone. Moreover, if Zuckerberg and Co. do indeed begin to routinely abuse the power they’ve accrued, it will be for the most sordid of reasons: the desire to please the powerful. The backlash against Silicon Valley is growing unpreventably, and with it the likelihood that tech’s leading lights will be hauled into Congress to account for themselves. When they are, they’ll need friends who are willing to agree to all sorts of convenient fictions in exchange for the chance to put their thumbs on the scales.

However good he might be at playing the innocent, Mark Zuckerberg knows full well that the wanton sharing of user data is not a glitch in his system, but its business model. He knows, too, that he’s not really hosting a big, messy, respectful “conversation” so much as he’s offering billions a megaphone that they wouldn’t otherwise have. As a libertarian-leaning conservative, I have no issue with that. If a free people want to exchange the chance to shout nonsense into the ether for the rapacious use of their data, so be it. But I do have a problem with the service’s leaders’ feigning surprise that that is the deal they are offering. And I have an even bigger problem with the idea that the biggest threat to the American way of life is an unfiltered Web rather than the whims of that Web’s architects and referees. How odd it would be if, in horrified response to the choices of the newly unshackled, the liberation the Internet promised eventually gave way to the birthing of a new generation of untouchable arbiters of taste.

In This Issue

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The Week

The Week

Barack Obama signed a contract with Netflix. Now he’ll be working for the media instead of the other way around.
Athwart

Going Postal

The president is displeased with Amazon, which seems odd; it’s like reading “George H. W. Bush was spitting mad at Sears.”

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