Face­book is not so­cial in­fra­struc­ture; it’s a tool for sub­vert­ing democ­racy

De­spite some CEOs’ claims, plat­forms such as Face­book and In­sta­gram aren’t driven by the de­sire to cre­ate so­cial in­fra­struc­ture

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - ERIC KLI­NEN­BERG

Au­thor of Palaces for the Peo­ple: How So­cial In­fra­struc­ture Can Help Fight In­equal­ity, Po­lar­iza­tion, and the De­cline of Civic Life, from which this es­say was adapted.

In Fe­bru­ary, 2017, Face­book founder and CEO Mark Zucker­berg posted a six-thou­sand­word open let­ter on the site he cre­ated. It’s ad­dressed “To our com­mu­nity,” and within a few sen­tences Mr. Zucker­berg asks his com­pany’s two bil­lion or so users a straight­for­ward ques­tion: “Are we build­ing the world we all want?”

The an­swer was self-ev­i­dent. If there’s a core prin­ci­ple in Mr. Zucker­berg’s world­view, it’s that hu­man be­ings make progress when we break down so­cial and ge­o­graphic di­vi­sions and form larger, more ex­pan­sive moral com­mu­ni­ties. “His­tory is the story of how we’ve learned to come to­gether in ever greater numbers – from tribes to cities to na­tions,” he claims. “At each step, we built so­cial in­fra­struc­ture like com­mu­ni­ties, me­dia and gov­ern­ments to em­power us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

As chief ex­ec­u­tive of one of the world’s most prof­itable and fastest-grow­ing cor­po­ra­tions, Mr. Zucker­berg is gen­er­ally cau­tious about mak­ing ex­plic­itly par­ti­san state­ments. But in the 2016 cam­paign, he had de­nounced the “fear­ful voices call­ing for build­ing walls and dis­tanc­ing peo­ple they la­bel as oth­ers,” and a few weeks be­fore post­ing his let­ter, he con­demned U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der to ban im­mi­grants from se­lected Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries: “We should … keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help. That’s who we are.” Mr. Zucker­berg’s let­ter, re­leased dur­ing this un­usu­ally pub­lic con­flict with the new Pres­i­dent, was meant to be Face­book’s new mis­sion state­ment as well as its blue­print for how to re­build so­ci­ety in a tu­mul­tuous, po­ten­tially au­thor­i­tar­ian age.

“In times like th­ese, the most im­por­tant thing we at Face­book can do is de­velop the so­cial in­fra­struc­ture to give peo­ple the power to build a global com­mu­nity that works for all of us,” he ex­plained. Face­book, as Mr. Zucker­berg sees it, is uniquely ca­pa­ble of bridg­ing our so­cial di­vi­sions. He rec­og­nizes that, where they re­main pop­u­lar, churches, sports teams, unions and other civic groups de­liver the so­cial ben­e­fits that he wants Face­book to gen­er­ate: “They pro­vide all of us with a sense of pur­pose and hope; mor- al val­i­da­tion that we are needed and part of some­thing big­ger than our­selves; com­fort that we are not alone and a com­mu­nity is look­ing out for us; men­tor­ship, guid­ance and per­sonal de­vel­op­ment; a safety net; val­ues, cul­tural norms and ac­count­abil­ity; so­cial gath­er­ings, rit­u­als and a way to meet new peo­ple; and a way to pass time.”

Yet, he also ar­gues that, in th­ese dark times marked by the “strik­ing de­cline” of group mem­ber­ship since the 1970s, “on­line com­mu­ni­ties are a bright spot.” At Face­book, Mr. Zucker­berg writes, “our next fo­cus will be de­vel­op­ing the so­cial in­fra­struc­ture for com­mu­nity – for sup­port­ing us, for keep­ing us safe, for in­form­ing us, for civic en­gage­ment, and for in­clu­sion of all.”

His first promise is that his team will de­velop bet­ter al­go­rithms for pre­dict­ing which kinds of “very mean­ing­ful” Face­book com­mu­ni­ties (those that “quickly be­come the most im­por­tant part of our so­cial net­work ex­pe­ri­ence”) would ben­e­fit its users, and to “help con­nect one bil­lion peo­ple with mean­ing­ful com­mu­ni­ties, that can strengthen our so­cial fab­ric.” His sec­ond promise is to “ex­pand groups to sup­port sub-com­mu­ni­ties,” peo­ple who care about the same sports teams, tele­vi­sion shows, video games and the like. His third is to “re­in­force our phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties by bring­ing us to­gether in per­son to sup­port each other.”

He tells read­ers how Face­book’s so­cial in­fra­struc­ture will pro­mote health and safety, and again it in­volves get­ting peo­ple to do more things on­line. Us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, the com­pany will “help our com­mu­nity iden­tify prob­lems be­fore they hap­pen.” He says that Face­book has “built in­fra­struc­ture to show Am­ber Alerts,” that it has “built in­fra­struc­ture to work with pub­lic safety or­ga­ni­za­tions” and “built in­fra­struc­ture like Safety Check so we can all let our friends know we’re safe and check on friends who might be af­fected by an attack or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.”

Mr. Zucker­berg wants to rein­vig­o­rate democ­racy. He sees Face­book as a tool for help­ing peo­ple vote, speak out and or­ga­nize. He en­vi­sions it gen­er­at­ing new ways for peo­ple around the world to par­tic­i­pate in col­lec­tive gov­er­nance, new ways to achieve open­ness, trans­parency and, more am­bi­tiously, a re­newed com­mit­ment to the com­mon good.

His rhetoric is as grandiose as we’d ex­pect from a man whose com­pany has bil­lions of ac­tive users and a mar­ket value around US$500-bil­lion. But the vi­sion of so­cial in­fra­struc­ture that he en­dorses is flimsy.

So­cial me­dia, for all their pow­ers, can­not give us what we get from churches, unions, ath­letic clubs and wel­fare states. They are nei­ther a safety net nor a gath­er­ing place.

The in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia have un­ques­tion­ably made it eas­ier to meet new peo­ple and main­tain con­tact with friends and fam­ily. They al­low us to share all kinds of in­for­ma­tion, from the most mun­dane to the most in­ti­mate, with huge numbers of peo­ple, in real time. To­day, the in­ter­net is where North Amer­i­cans are most likely to search for and find their spouse. It’s where peo­ple go when they want to find out where to protest or rally. And, of course, it’s where they go to post pho­to­graphs of their chil­dren, their fam­ily va­ca­tion, their break­fast, them­selves.

It’s com­mon, th­ese days, to hear that the in­ter­net, and par­tic­u­larly so­cial me­dia, is mak­ing us lone­lier and more iso­lated than ever. Th­ese claims may well feel true to those who long for sim­pler, hap­pier times – but there’s no good ev­i­dence that they’re ac­cu­rate. For most of us, Face­book friends and In­sta­gram fol­low­ers are sup­ple­ments to – not sur­ro­gates for – our so­cial lives. As mean­ing­ful as the friend­ships we es­tab­lish on­line can be, most of us are un­sat­is­fied with vir­tual ties that never de­velop into face-to­face re­la­tion­ships. Build­ing real con­nec­tions re­quires a shared phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment – a so­cial in­fra­struc­ture.

Un­for­tu­nately, as in­sider ac­counts from Sil­i­con Val­ley tech com­pa­nies have es­tab­lished, keep­ing peo­ple on their screens, rather than in the world of faceto-face in­ter­ac­tion, is a key pri­or­ity of de­sign­ers and engi­neers at so­cial-me­dia out­lets such as Face­book. Mr. Zucker­berg, in other words, is not pro­mot­ing real so­cial in­fra­struc­ture, but a com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem that makes it harder for most of us to be fully present and en­gaged with the peo­ple we’re spend­ing time with in real life.

Face­book can, and oc­ca­sion­ally does, help us find peo­ple with whom we build re­la­tion­ships in real life, and per­haps someday it will im­prove. In early 2018, Mr. Zucker­berg posted an ac­knowl­edg­ment that Face­book “is crowd­ing out the per­sonal mo­ments that lead us to con­nect more with each other,” and he pledged to change the site even if it meant that “the time peo­ple spend on Face­book and some mea­sures of en­gage­ment will go down.” But no mat­ter how the site’s de­sign­ers tweak Face­book con­tent, the hu­man con­nec­tions we need to es­cape dan­ger, es­tab­lish trust and re­build so­ci­ety re­quire re­cur­rent so­cial in­ter­ac­tion in phys­i­cal places, not pokes and likes with “friends” on­line.

It is disin­gen­u­ous for Mr. Zucker­berg to claim that Face­book, like the so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions that he sees de­clin­ing, pro­motes the kinds of val­ues, cul­tural norms and sys­tems of ac­count­abil­ity that democ­racy re­quires. Be­cause, when Mr. Zucker­berg wrote his open let­ter, he al­ready knew what Face­book would not ac­knowl­edge un­til the U.S. Congress ef­fec­tively forced a con­fes­sion: Dur­ing the most di­vi­sive and con­se­quen­tial pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in re­cent his­tory, Rus­sian pro­pa­gan­dists had used Mr. Zucker­berg’s so-called so­cial in­fra­struc­ture to buy more than three thou­sand fake news ads that reached at least 10 mil­lion peo­ple.

Thanks to Face­book’s tech­nol­ogy, the Rus­sians – as well as al­tright or­ga­ni­za­tions in­tent on spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion in­side the United States – could tar­get their cam­paign to swing-state vot­ers. The or­ga­ni­za­tions be­hind th­ese ads did not merely want to ma­nip­u­late cit­i­zens and sup­press turnout in com­mu­ni­ties likely to sup­port the Demo­cratic can­di­date, Hil­lary Clin­ton. They also aimed to sow so­cial di­vi­sions that would un­der­mine Amer­i­cans’ faith in democ­racy, and – as re­cent re­port­ing has es­tab­lished – they made sim­i­lar ef­forts to wreak havoc in open so­ci­eties around the world. Face­book, whose al­go­rithms am­plify ex­treme, emo­tional mes­sages that stoke po­lar­iza­tion and down­play more nu­anced, de­lib­er­a­tive posts, is ide­ally suited for the job.

Since the 2016 elec­tion, Face­book and other tech com­pa­nies have made ma­jor in­vest­ments in a lob­by­ing cam­paign to stave off reg­u­la­tions that would re­quire them to dis­close who is pur­chas­ing po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing.

Mr. Zucker­berg’s team has por­trayed the Rus­sians’ abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late so­cial me­dia for their po­lit­i­cal project as a tech­ni­cal prob­lem that can be fixed with engi­neer­ing.

More fun­da­men­tally, how­ever, the elec­tion and the sub­se­quent con­gres­sional hear­ings with high-tech lead­ers re­vealed that the com­pa­nies that man­age large-scale, for-profit com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­fra­struc­tures are set up to pri­or­i­tize gen­er­at­ing rev­enue above de­liv­er­ing pub­lic goods. Pub­licly traded cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing Face­book, are legally re­quired to max­i­mize share­holder value, and while some CEOs de­fine value ex­pan­sively, most fo­cus on the bot­tom line.

Mr. Zucker­berg surely didn’t want his com­pany to fa­cil­i­tate malev­o­lent in­ter­ven­tion into the demo­cratic process; and yet, as in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters dis­cov­ered, Face­book’s ad­ver­tis­ing sales­peo­ple and engi­neers made great ef­forts to help do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal-ad­vo­cacy groups, in­clud­ing the anti-Clin­ton, anti-Islam or­ga­ni­za­tion Se­cure Amer­ica Now, reach their tar­geted au­di­ences. No mat­ter their po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences, Face­book em­ploy­ees had a sim­ple rea­son for do­ing this: Win­ning ad­ver­tis­ers is their job. Pro­mot­ing democ­racy isn’t.

Dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, Face­book made a neg­li­gi­ble profit from ac­cept­ing paid po­lit­i­cal ads from groups as­so­ci­ated with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and the far-right. Amer­i­can democ­racy, and the global com­mu­nity that Mr. Zucker­berg says he is com­mit­ted to build­ing, suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing loss.

Now we are less than two months from an­other set of con­se­quen­tial elec­tions, and many be­lieve that noth­ing less than the fu­ture of Amer­i­can democ­racy is at stake. Once again, Rus­sian agents are us­ing Face­book and other so­cial me­dia to in­flu­ence the elec­tion, tar­get­ing pro­pa­ganda and mis­in­for­ma­tion to vot­ers in piv­otal dis­tricts and states. This time, un­der in­tense scru­tiny from reg­u­la­tors, Face­book is do­ing more to mon­i­tor and shut down those who ex­ploit its tech­nol­ogy to thwart the po­lit­i­cal process. But the dis­turb­ing truth is that Mr. Zucker­berg, while try­ing to en­gi­neer a so­cial in­fra­struc­ture, has in­stead cre­ated a pow­er­ful tool for sub­vert­ing democ­racy, in the United States and around the world.

It’s time for the world’s demo­cratic lead­ers to fight back.

So­cial me­dia, for all their pow­ers, can­not give us what we get from churches, unions, ath­letic clubs and wel­fare states. They are nei­ther a safety net nor a gath­er­ing place.

Reprinted from Palaces for the Peo­ple: How So­cial In­fra­struc­ture Can Help Fight In­equal­ity, Po­lar­iza­tion, and the De­cline of Civic Life by Eric Kli­nen­berg. Copy­right © 2018 by Eric Kli­nen­berg. Pub­lished by Crown, an im­print of the Crown Pub­lish­ing Group, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC.


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