Will Facebook Power The Future Of Civil Society?

03/01/2017 10:47 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2017
Mark Zuckerberg delivers his keynote address at Facebook’s F8 Developers Conference in 2016 in San Francisco
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Mark Zuckerberg delivers his keynote address at Facebook’s F8 Developers Conference in 2016 in San Francisco

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg, the internet’s Boy King, laid out his vision of our future in the form of an expansive 5,700-word dissertation. Zuckerberg’s manifesto, which manages to be at once insipid and terrifying, outlines a version of our collective trajectory in the coming decades that will digitally bind us to one another as never before. Our emerging global community, Zuckerberg concludes, requires a new kind of infrastructure to fully realize its potential. And in case you were wondering, his global ad-supported social network, worth nearly half a trillion dollars and over which he has retained sixty percent voting rights, is just the thing to deliver it. 

Media Company or Technology Platform?

In recent years, as it has upended the digital advertising industry, Facebook has struggled to decide if it’s a technology platform or a media company. It has instead tended to exhibit the worst qualities of both.

In May of 2016, Facebook’s trending topics debacle shone a light on what until then had seemed fairly innocuous, until it was presumed to be biased against conservative news: a list of topics, partly sourced by algorithms, filtered by humans at Facebook. Gizmodo, which broke the story, spoke with anonymous “news curators” (mostly recent Ivy League graduates hired as independent contractors with little experience in journalism) who claimed that Facebook routinely suppressed popular stories from conservative sources, and “injected” those from more left-leaning ones. Perhaps more interesting still, stories about Facebook itself required several levels of approval before being mentioned at all. (Joshua Topolsky’s fascinating interview with Gizmodo technology editor Michael Nuñez shortly after the story broke describes Facebook’s less-than-forthright position throughout the controversy in some detail.)

The secret cabal which filters our information, it turned out, was not a government conspircy or Zionist plot, but a group of underpaid beanbag-ensconced interns in San Jose.

Three months later, Facebook fired most of its human editors and began to rely on algorithmic methods of surfacing popular stories into its Trending news feature. The election-driven “fake news” phenomenon of 2016 until present, at least partly attributable to this new approach of algorithm-as-editor, has laid bare the risks of eliminating human editorial staff, and raises even more questions about Facebook’s role as a source of reliable information.

Since it launched Instant Articles, a tool that allows publishers to post stories directly on the Facebook site, those publishers have struggled to determine how much of their content management and editorial infrastructure should be effectively outsourced to the company. The platform has continued to grow into a complicated dual role of both gatekeeper and disruptor of journalism, siphoning off more of the ever-dwindling revenue from ad-supported news organizations.

Adrienne Lafrance at The Atlantic notes that Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of civil society makes the role of traditional journalism even less clear. Facebook as the mediator of communities, and the information that binds them, leaves significant questions unanswered about how that information is sourced and disseminated within its walled garden.

Among them: how does an algorithm make a judgement about newsworthiness, and how is that distinguished from mere popularity? How will Facebook’s algorithms personalize the news to its users’ preferences without reinforcing biases and information bubbles that have come to pervade political discourse? How will stories be prioritized that are critical of Facebook itself, and assuming they will be treated equally, how will that be verifiable? Will Facebook’s news algorithms be subjected to external review at all, or will they be considered proprietary and confidential?

For anyone who’s observed the evolution of digital media over the past decade, the willingness of venerable journalism brands to trade their credibility for clickbait has been breathtaking, not unlike burning one’s furniture for heat. The screws have been turned on publishers already desperate for revenue; clicks have become the intoxicating new currency for the fourth estate.

And rather than be aligned with the quality, importance, or newsworthiness of content, Facebook itself is incentivized to maximize user engagement, and generate as much pay-per-click revenue as possible. There are few reasons for this troubling arrangement to change. Based on a report from early 2016, Facebook and Google together generate an astounding eighty-five percent of the world’s digital advertising revenue.

But if you take the Zuckerbergian ideal to its logical conclusion, Facebook will supplant more than just journalism; it will become an altogether new kind of political medium, and will do everything from serving as a kind of digital community center to counting our votes. (A more predictably dystopian political plot one could not write.)

Social Media Platform or Extension of the Surveillance State?

If Facebook ever lost your data due to some catastrophic event, you might try your luck getting a backup copy from the National Security Agency. Facebook, after all, has been among the most loyal and enthusiastic informants for the emerging surveillance state.

The Trump administration has already demonstrated a penchant for enemies lists and “plumbing” campaigns that would make Nixon blush. But this time, with one key difference: a vast and nearly unchecked level of access, via government-run surveillance programs, to citizens’ private communiations including email, Skype, SMS, and indeed – Facebook. Of the top seven most used social networking apps, four of them (Facebook, FB Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) are owned by Facebook. (Sean Spicer’s apparent demand to his loose-lipped staff, reported by Politico, that they hand over their mobile devices so that his henchmen might rummage through their contents to identify leakers is as quaint as it is offensive, if only because it’s probably completely unnecessary.)

But if complicity with domestic surveillance programs isn’t enough to undermine Facebook’s self-declared role in the future of civil society, consider its commitment to repressive foreign governments.

In its negotiations with the Chinese government (and after a staged photo-op with the unironically-titled Minister of Propaganda), Facebook has positioned itself to be an extension of the Chinese government’s disinformation, censorship, and surveillance apparatus:

“The social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added.” – NY Times, November 22, 2016

Facebook’s objective for growth can be essentially be summarized as having an account for every man, woman, and child on earth, a de facto personal identification system for the world. Having embraced a least-common-denominator philosophy of personal liberty, this vision necessarily involves the awkwardness of dealing with repressive and genocidal negotiation partners, unencumbered by the inconveniences of a Bill of Rights.

Poor Optics of Facebook’s Board

One might expect that with the worries of spreading misinformation and eroding personal privacy swirling around it, Facebook would be interested in maintaining at least a veneer of concern regarding its public image, and those who represent it.

Peter Thiel, the techno-utopian New Zealand land owner and privacy rights advocate for celebrity wrestlers, has quickly emerged as perhaps the most politically powerful member of Facebook’s board of directors (having secured – if not the right hand of the king – at the very least, his left). Among Mr. Thiel’s other endeavors is Palantir Technologies, the analytics software company he founded in 2004, recently valued at twenty billion dollars, and of which he is Chairman.

The Intercept recently published this compelling piece showing that Palantir has had a long-standing role in developing data intelligence software for the NSA, and that among its clients are spy agencies from various governments around the world.

The most charitable explanation for Facebook’s commitment to retaining Peter Thiel on its board, poor optics and all, is that even though it might undermine any pretense of the platform’s commitment to personal privacy, access to the Trump administration is probably more valuable.

Does Facebook Feel Like the Future?

Ultimately, the most convincing reason why I doubt Facebook will emerge as the platform for civil society in the twenty-first century is that it’s just not a very good product. It’s interface is ugly and non-intuitive. It looks, feels, and behaves like a fifteen-year-old website, beset with its inscrutable left-hand nav menu of yore. It has a sclerotic approach to design principles. Put simply, it just doesn’t feel like the future. But it’s important to distinguish Facebook-the-product from Facebook-the-network; its user base is so deeply entrenched, and its network effect so strong, that there would have to be something massively disruptive to supplant it, or replace its role in the future of community and democratic engagement, as Zuckerberg envisions.

So if not Facebook, what does the future of community in a digital space look like? If we won’t be voting on Facebook in fifty years, then what will we be using?

One promising innovation is a platform called Ethereum. Built on a blockchain architecture like Bitcoin, Ethereum is a newly-emerged crypto-currency with a twist: it includes an additional logic layer that serves as a kind of distributed computing platform. This provides the ability to script and automate “smart contracts” – applications within the Ethereum system that could be used for anything from processing financial transactions to (theoretically) implemeting a large-scale, secure and transparent digital voting platform using the blockchain. (Disclosure: I do not own any Ethereum, and never have.)

Whichever digital platforms will power our future social and political institutions, they must at some level be open, transparent, and auditable, ensuring that they are not subjected to outside influence––or if they are — that such influence could be identified. They must also enable individual control over data privacy, surely to be one of the most critical rights we must fight to retain under this spectre of authoritarianism, or any future version of it.

Daniel Leslie is a managing partner at Reflexions, a digital innovation lab in New York. Sign up for his email list, Letters From the Future, or follow him on Twitter.

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