Altercation: The Facebook Threat to Democracy—and Us All – The American Prospect
On the hatred, violence, and lies that further enrich Mark Zuckerberg
by Eric Alterman
October 1, 2021
Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
Life-size cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg adorn the East Lawn of the Capitol, April 10, 2018, ahead of his appearance at a Senate hearing on digital privacy.
Facebook presents so massive a threat to so many aspects of our lives, it can be hard to imagine its scope, much less try to figure out what might be done to disarm it. In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance notes that this past summer, Facebook boasted fully 2.9 billion monthly active users. It has become, she notes, “effectively, a hostile foreign power,” which is evident “in its single-minded focus on its own expansion; its immunity to any sense of civic obligation; its record of facilitating the undermining of elections; its antipathy toward the free press; its rulers’ callousness and hubris; and its indifference to the endurance of American democracy.” It is also “a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse. It is designed for blunt-force emotional reaction, reducing human interaction to the clicking of buttons … Facebook executives have tolerated the promotion on their platform of propaganda, terrorist recruitment, and genocide. They point to democratic virtues like free speech to defend themselves, while dismantling democracy itself.”
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You may have already heard that, thanks to a trove of leaked internal documents. The Wall Street Journal (unfortunately paywalled) has been publishing a series of investigative articles that demonstrate how dishonestly the company has defended its anti-democratic, anti-humanitarian, anti-civilizational pursuit of profit. They are all collected here, but for a short course, I’ve listed below just the headlines on the Journal’s stories, so you can see the extent of what might fairly be called Facebook’s “crimes against humanity.”
Some background: The primary reason Facebook is so committed to publishing lies is that, as the study discussed in this article demonstrates, “misinformation on Facebook got six times more clicks than factual news during the 2020 election.” It notes also that—surprise, surprise—“right-leaning pages” produce more misinformation than any other kind. For instance, we learn here that “Facebook groups promoting ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment continue to flourish.”
It’s no wonder, then, that “to stir discord in 2016, Russians turned most often to Facebook.” Nor should we be at all surprised that when the company did its own internal investigation, as this Times piece notes, “Facebook, fearing public outcry, shelved earlier report on popular posts.”
Facebook also has no problem with the pursuit of mass violence if it contributes to its profits. As Shira Ovide writes, “The company’s most shameful human toll—its contribution to violence, human trafficking and abuses by authoritarian governments—has mostly happened in countries outside North America and Western Europe like India, Honduras, Myanmar, Ethiopia and the Philippines.”
How does Facebook deal with the information that these crimes are taking place? You guessed it; as this Journal piece explains, “Facebook ordered to release records on closed Myanmar accounts.” (Although in this case, a “federal judge rules social-media company must hand over information about posts removed for promoting violence against Rohingya Muslims”; allowing it to withhold them “would compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.”)
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Another shocker: A group of scholars attempted to understand and explain what was going on inside the company using the data it provides. They then described the company’s response: “We research misinformation on Facebook. It just disabled our accounts.”
The authors explained:
Our team at N.Y.U.’s Center for Cybersecurity has been studying Facebook’s platform for three years. Last year, we deployed a browser extension we developed called Ad Observer that allows users to voluntarily share information with us about ads that Facebook shows them. It is this tool that has raised the ire of Facebook and that it pointed to when it disabled our accounts. In the course of our overall research, we’ve been able to demonstrate that extreme, unreliable news sources get more engagement—that is, user interaction—on Facebook, at the expense of accurate posts and reporting.
Is there a single individual who can be blamed for all this? you may ask. Well, yes. As John Naughton notes in The Guardian, “Essentially, Facebook is a dictatorship entirely controlled by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. This total control is ensured by a two-tier share ownership structure that gives him untrammeled power. The company’s regular regulatory filings describe it thus: ‘Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, chairman and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation or sale of all or substantially all of our assets.’”
Is this individual an evil megalomaniac? is perhaps your next question. Well, there is this: “Zuckerberg posts flag-waving video on electric surfboard.” Perhaps more significantly, there is also this: “No More Apologies: Inside Facebook’s Push to Defend Its Image.”
In that Times article, we learn that “Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, signed off last month on a new initiative code-named Project Amplify. The effort, which was hatched at an internal meeting in January, had a specific purpose: to use Facebook’s News Feed, the site’s most important digital real estate, to show people positive stories about the social network.”
Where does that leave us? Well, apparently the most powerful media platform in the world, a platform that has no prohibitions against out-and-out lying and promoting violence for profit, is now also going to be used specifically to promote itself, so that it might do even more of the same. Let’s hope no party—say, the Democrats—considers nominating a politician who is not to Facebook’s liking. Remember, for instance, when Elizabeth Warren, who called for the breaking up of the company, briefly appeared to be in the lead for the Dems’ presidential nod back in 2019. What was Zuckerberg’s plan? “‘We care about our country and want to work with our government to do good things,’” he said. “‘But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.’”
Oh, and hey, guess what? Thanks to AI, the misinformation problem at Facebook is about to get a zillion times worse.
LaFrance’s Atlantic piece also quotes the late “political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson [who] suggested that nations are defined not by their borders but by imagination.” I took just one class with Anderson in college, but it made an enormous impression on me. I wrote a sort of eulogy for him when he died in 2015, called “Remembering Benedict Anderson.”
There, I recalled
one of the most exciting intellectual moments of my life: He invited me to attend a faculty/graduate seminar where he sketched, in graphic form on a whiteboard, the argument that would eventually become Imagined Communities [the book LaFrance was quoting]. That short book, which has since been translated into more than two dozen languages, is without doubt the most influential work ever written on the origins of nationalism. It has also turned out to be a significant work of media studies. In it, Anderson considers Hegel’s comparison of the ritual of the morning paper to that of morning prayer: “Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” It is at least partially through the “imagined community” of the daily newspaper, Anderson explained, that nations are forged.
Seven years earlier, I wrote an essay in The New Yorker about the impending collapse of the newspaper industry, and there, too, I turned to Anderson to help explain what it might mean for the country in the future. And again, I quoted his line about how nations are “forged,” as did LaFrance in her piece.
And as we now see, it is through Facebook and other irresponsible, fascist-friendly media properties that they can also be destroyed.
Speaking of inspirational teachers, here’s a recording of a Kol Nidre/Yom Kippur sermon on the meaning of race in America and its relationship to Judaism from a rabbi in Dallas that begins, literally, with a description of an American history class I took in high school in the academic year 1976–1977. All teachers are definitely not heroes, per Norm MacDonald, but some sure are, and I’ve been very lucky in that department (which, I suppose, is why I became one).
I also published a piece in The Nation this week, comparing the mainstream media coverage, and the lack of attention paid by the foreign-policy establishment to Central America in general and to Nicaragua in particular, to the obsessiveness shown back in the 1980s, when the Red Menace reigned. It’s called “Why the Media No Longer Cares About Nicaragua.”
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently ‘Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse.’ Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
October 1, 2021
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