Facebook (FB) was always going to bring us here.
For years, there have been troubling public revelations about FB’s practices and content, including but not limited to non-controlled, non-consented experiments on the emotional impact of user feed, ownership of data and photos, posting of salacious, violent, divisive content, the mental health of human reviewers and the health of its platform. Then there was the accelerant of AI, both Facebook’s and bots from third parties designed to shape both content and human interaction, with little concern for its impact on user behavior, beyond simple engagement, resulting in disaffection and malaise amongst FB users and employees alike.
Analyzing the pathology of FB, the poster-child of what ails the public about social media, can identify both the disease and potential remedies of that industry.
We can diagnose this illness through it signs, of which five are prominent:
- The concentration of power, in both the platform and its CEO
- The nature of the platform
- The nature of the content
- Anti-competitive behavior
- Privacy and data ownership
Power Concentration: The Platform. The Man.
Several former FB personnel and advisors, and the recent whistleblower, Frances Haugen, speak of FB’s dominance, not only of the industry, but as the means to internet access, communications and commerce. This outsized power and importance was punctuated on Monday 04 October 2021 when over 3B users were denied access to what for many is an essential service when FB went offline for more than 6 hours. FB’s footprint covers nearly half the world’s population.
The second power element is FB’s chairman, CEO and controlling shareholder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his unparalleled control over his company. He enjoys a 58% voting share on FB’s board, and cannot be overruled. His is the ultimate and final say at FB. As recently as 26 May 2021, FB’s board rejected proposals to reduce his powers. As one former senior FB member put it, he does not respond well to being told ‘no.’
Bear in mind that before becoming a social media mogul, he hailed from a village in Westchester County, NY, dropped out of Harvard during his sophomore year, and had never held a job. With this limited exposure, grooming and socialization, within 2 years of entering Harvard, he would launch FB from his dorm room, and become embroiled in litigation before moving to Palo Alto (2004), and being catapulted to global relevance and power.
His contemporaneous interviews and public statements reveal the thinking of a ‘man-child’, a psychological profile so well established that it is a staple entertainment trope. With so thin a resume, and so little experience, no one would have placed him in charge of an empire of such far-reaching social impact, even at FB’s 2004 status, but destiny is without sentiment.
Nature of the Platform
Is FB simply a platform, like a utility or carrier, as it has argued, or is it a publisher? FB has argued that, as a platform, it is neither responsible nor liable for the content on its platform, despite a gathering contrary consensus.
And yet, the company’s assertion of being merely a platform is contradicted by the whistleblower hearing, highlighting FB’s muddled, inconsistent and arguably ineffective policing of its platform’s content. If FB is merely a content-disinterested platform, then why the attempted moderation?
Further, the hearing explored how FB’s own AI-powered algorithms select for ‘engaging’ content (which trend towards controversy, division and anger); content more likely to be shared and commented on. The Facebook AI then pushes that content out to users likely to respond, and then monetizes their engagement.
In short, FB creates ‘bestsellers’ from its content, and then promotes and gains revenue from them. That is what publishers do. FB is a publisher . Full stop. This should no longer be debatable.
Nature of the Content
We described above the divisive nature of the content, a chronic complaint which was highlighted in the Senate hearing. There were prior public defections, preceding but accelerated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Ms. Haugen also described how FB’s AI-powered algorithms push certain content to specific users, progressing to increasingly extreme content. Social scientists have discussed why we are drawn to controversy, divisiveness and extremism. This is a survival mechanism, an attempt to defend the tribe upon whom our survival depends. FB uses augmented intelligence to accelerate the intensity, speed and scale of that engagement. In short, FB’s AI attacks a hard-wired survival trait; an exploit for which we have not evolved a natural defense and to which we are exquisitely vulnerable. This is like taking a highly contagious virus for which we have neither preventive nor therapeutic interventions, and further weaponizing it with advanced technology. Facebook’s policies and business model has had an outsized effect on the most vulnerable members of the global community; minority populations like the Rohingya and the Dalits (particularly women and young girls), and beyond them, populations in the world’s dwindling liberal democracies.
Another pathological sign highlighted in the hearing was FB’s anti-competitive behavior, including the acquisition of platforms that could either compete with FB (WhatsApp) or outcompete FB for a younger generation (Instagram), assimilating their ‘biological and technological distinctiveness’ into the FB continuum, thereby eliminating their threat. Importantly, by purchasing these companies, their corporate principles and practices were enucleated and supplanted with FB’s own, particularly concerning data ownership and privacy (more below). Other aspects of FB’s anticompetitive behavior have been discussed elsewhere. This complaint has been accompanied by calls for FB and other companies to be broken up as a remedy.
Privacy and Data Ownership
The final pathological sign is FB’s policies on privacy and data ownership, which are one-sided and abstruse. Most users do not understand the terms, which defies the meaning of informed consent. How FB then monetize those user data with their actual customers, i.e. advertisers and other clients (users and their data are not clients, but the product), is beyond user control and is poorly understood by world legislators. Despite debacles like Cambridge Analytica, FB continues to argue for self-regulation on user data and privacy.
Haugen’s accusation, and FB’s growing profits and market cap, demonstrate a preference for profit over social good, characterized by unregulated expansive growth at the expense of the health of the host. That is effectively the definition of a cancer. The host is global society.
Let’s be clear, neither social media nor FB are the cancer. Like vital organs, they provide benefits upon which modern society depends. Rather, they harbor a malignant transformation in business practice that seeks profit and growth at the expense of societal well-being. That is the malignancy that necessitates action.
If cancer is the diagnosis, then how do we address it?
If we aim to contain it, we are going feel it. It will not be quick. It is going to hurt.
Precision Surgery and Debridement
Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly demonstrated that he is unprepared and unfit to unilaterally wield the global power he has amassed. His power must be cut to manageable size. This lies at the heart of FB’s malignant potential, and occupies the first order of importance. His personal and social limitations and lack of accountability characterize both his leadership and the platform’s modus operandi with that defining feature of immaturity—irresponsibility. Recall that FB’s original slogan was ‘Move fast and break things’. Despite dropping the slogan, FB’s behavior is unchanged. Indeed, the corollary of irresponsibility is denial of culpability. This has been FB’s consistent stance whenever the platform is accused of harm.
Furthermore, Mr. Zuckerberg displays a woeful lack of self-awareness. Contrast his behavior to that of Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and their hiring of Eric Schmidt as CEO when both realized their need to grow and mature into responsible CEOs, and one understands just how dangerous and reckless is Mr. Zuckerberg’s chosen path. Messieurs Page and Brin knew that this step was necessary, Mr. Zuckerberg never has. This underscores a present danger.
Giving any CEO unchallengeable fiat over policies and decisions, including corrective measures to documented problems, is a recipe for disaster; more so when that CEO’s exposure and global social intelligence are as evidently limited as Mr. Zuckerberg’s; not to mention when his decisions can and do adversely affect the lives of billions. About 90% of FB users reside outside of North America, and former employees admit that FB moderators are as ill-equipped to police such a diverse population as Mark Zuckerberg is to apparently appreciate such complexity. His CEO tenure is a case study in why this is an untenable arrangement, underscored by the thousands of lives lost and the millions displaced by the Rohingya alone.
The remedy is to reduce that power into alignment with that of the industry, where a CEO is constrained by a board of directors. Unless and until Mark Zuckerberg’s power is subordinated, and he is accountable to collective intelligence, experience and wisdom, no other corrective measures can have lasting effect. He will over-rule any change he dislikes, as he has done all along. This is the first and essential step.
Cut the Blood Supply To the Remaining Tumor
How? If the goal is to effect change in power structure and policy, divestment alone is unlikely to succeed, due to market dynamics and human nature, although divestment might create an undesirable stigma around FB. Rather, boycotting the platform, with a decline in users, clicks and revenue is more likely to succeed. Those who wish to see FB change, particularly in high-resource settings with competing social media options, should boycott FB until it does. A sufficient drop in revenue could precipitate the type of investor activism cited by a Booz Allen Hamilton study as a major factor in CEO and corporate change.
Legislators should create and agree upon common regulation standards. Whether they have any role in internal corporate power structures is a debatable, but timely discussion.
Next: Systemic Therapy for the Facebook problem