5 min read

Facebook, or whoever controls the medium

It has been argued that one of the things that allow the human race to go as far as it does is our ability to communicate and produce knowledge through argumentation. When doing my undergrad a friend used to say that we don’t really think until when we write it somewhere and make sure it makes sense (in some way, this blog is an exercise in articulation). Alternatively, I recently heard someone say that we should not believe things we are exposed to until we understand them, regardless of where they come from. Most social advancements are made when we discuss, creating something from nothing, in a way saying that through collaboration life is not a zero-sum game. With that in mind, the main topic I would like to discuss in this post is some of Facebook’s recent appearances in the media.

Some facts: – In 2017 Facebook published their manifesto in which they reinstate their strategy and it says that their main goal is “bringing us closer together and building a global community”. Although they mention different ways in which they are trying to be sensible about it, the statements are broad and do not really answer the “how”, only mention the “what”.1 – Facebook has 2 billion users (almost 30% of the world’s population), and although there are clear differences among those users, it seems to be a growing trend to conflate Facebook and Internet.2 – Facebook’s business model is NOT to sell users’ data. It uses all the information it gathers about you (a lot of information) to allocate advertisements to individuals within a target group3. This is, it will use the categories it has to narrow groups of people, and display that ad to them. The idea behind it is to be as personalised as possible without allowing for individual identification. There is not a lot of information on what is the lowest number of people these groups can have, but some sources claim it’s 20.

This last item is important because it is one of the things that has allowed the company to grow as large as it has. Through better ad targeting, more and more publishers go to the platform to present their content. This, in turn, has shifted ad revenue away from smaller companies, and potentially discourages new mediums to be created because it makes monetisation harder to achieve. Which in turn gives Facebook even more power.

My suggested reading of these items is that 1) Facebook has as their main objective to connect people; 2) they are succeeding at their goal; 3) at the expense of controlling what a lot of people consider the Internet; 4) with increasing risk for everyone involved given the idea behind their business model.

There are two points I am trying to make: One, that Facebook is large and powerful, and it wants to use that power to build an even larger network of people. As such, it has a responsibility by being the medium through which information is being transmitted, but perhaps most importantly, where important discussions are taking place. This responsibility is almost directly transmitted to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the company and director of strategy (as established by the manifesto). He is being held accountable for the Cambridge Analytica affair by testifying in front of the United States Congress. But how is that accountability executed in Myanmar where hate speech was spread through the platform and incited physical violence4?

No one elected Zuckerberg as leader of Facebook, as it is not a democratic institution, but we still rely on whatever he thinks the future of Facebook should be, and how we fit in it.

It’s perhaps easy to say that Facebook helped the United States elect Donald Trump as president in 2016. It’s easy to say that we are losing control of our private lives because we spend more time looking at our phones, than our parents used to spend watching television. It’s easy to say that we are just wasting too much time online. And it’s easy because it absolves us of our own responsibility in the matter. I would like to believe that as individuals, we have more agency of our own lives that we allow the media to claim.

So what about policy? Given the massive size of Facebook and it’s supranational reach, the best regulation is self-regulation. Policy is hard to mandate because it can have a differentiated effect (like in Germany where hate speech is fought hard against5, but the same policies do not extend to Europe). This is my second point: we can sit down and complain about everything, but ultimately, we are the only ones responsible for what we make of our lives. I am aware of the many structural factors that need to be taken into consideration like discrimination, racism, classism, poverty traps, inequality, violence, and many others, and I do not want to deny any of these. But complaining without doing anything, allows these things have an even stronger effect in our lives. In the same way, we should not allow Facebook to be the only source of our news, to be the only place where we have important conversations, and our sole way of interacting with our communities.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964 that the medium is the message6. The main takeaway from that document is the idea that the form through which content is distributed is itself a message, an even more important one. This “message”, McLuhan argued, is the rate of change, the scale, and the form of human association with information. The Internet shaped our way of interaction with information, but, I would argue that we are forgoing control over that interaction by not asking more of the technologies we use, and most importantly, of how we use them.

Small note: The University of Chicago is hosting a conference on this topic: 2018 Antitrust and Competition Conference – Digital Platforms and Concentration