Social media, particularly Facebook, is taking its turn as America’s moral panic du jour. It’s tough to explain how Facebook can possibly ruin a culture which has already been laid waste, in turn, by movies, radio, television, “Negro” music, porn, the VCR, credit cards, teen pregnancy, feminism, gay marriage, the pill, heavy metal, drugs, single parent homes, the Internet, sexting, vaping, explicit rap lyrics, video games, and Windows 95, but that didn’t stop the makers of Netflix’s masterpiece of doom porn, The Social Dilemma. The documentary lays the decline of liberal democracy at the feet of social media innovators, as explained by the architects of the platforms themselves. Chances are, if you’ve seen it, you were inspired by breathless Facebook posts from your friends.
Are there issues with social media? Of course. Is social media to blame for the crisis enveloping many of the world’s major democracies? Yes, and no. Blaming social media platforms like Facebook for this wave of instability we’re experiencing is a bit like blaming the printing press for the violence of Europe’s Reformation Era. It’s not wrong, but it misses the point.
Facebook is more likely to advance democracy than to derail it. Blind, Luddite panic over the novelties of social media can obscure its potential and slow our progress in an information arms race against authoritarians. Facebook may be liberal democracy’s best hope.
We tend to see the world in terms of actors and subjects acting on a narrative plane of good and evil, protagonist and antagonist. Food writer Michael Pollan likes to turn this individual-centric cause and effect thinking on its head, reminding us that life exists in an evolutionary fabric on which any notion of actor and the acted-upon can be tricky. As an example, he places mankind’s careful cultivation of our preferred foods in its wider evolutionary context, in which plants and animals are just as responsible for our choice to develop them as we are:
Through trial and error, these plant species have discovered that the best way to accomplish that is to induce animals—bees, people—to spread their genes far and wide. How? By playing on those animals’ desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
So did I choose to plant “my” potatoes or did the spuds make me do it? Both.
Whatever else Facebook might be, it is always, by design, a product of our choices. If there’s anything genuinely unique about the platform, it’s the degree of sensitivity to our collective inputs. Facebook is not manipulating us. Like an enormous Ouija board pulled by a billion hands, we are manipulating Facebook. In the end, the problems of Facebook are the problems of democracy. The power it places at our disposal is a blessing or a curse, depending on us.
What is Facebook? It’s a unique publishing platform, similar in some ways to earlier blogging engines with the twist that Facebook builds for users a default audience by connecting them with “friends.” Facebook users get the publishing power of the Internet or a blogging service combined with an audience composed of people they know.
Unlike Twitter or YouTube, Facebook takes steps to ensure that I am who I claim to be, meaning at the core of the platform is a collection of relatively authentic identities. Where Twitter is choked with phony accounts, many of which are operated by trollish AI or “bots,” Facebook identities, similar to the relatively staid LinkedIn, are anchored as nearly as possible to real people.
After years trying to figure out how to earn money, Facebook settled on a media model more than two centuries old, selling advertising and promotion. Just like CBS or The Chicago Tribune fifty years ago, Facebook gathers data on its users which is helpful to advertisers.
What’s unique about Facebook and its social media peers is that it doesn’t actually publish anything. It’s as if they’d built a broadcast network with the global reach of the BBC and surrendered all content decisions to us. If that sounds like an amazing opportunity for democracy, it is.
Criticisms of social media, and Facebook in particular, center around the following points:
Facebook’s business model, premised on a detailed understanding of each user derived from their online activities, forms a unique threat to privacy rights.
The “like” button is a digital heroin of unprecedented power, overwhelming our individual will, leaving us chained to platforms like Facebook looking for one more hit.
Facebook creates artificial bubbles or echo-chambers, encouraging people to sort themselves into smaller and smaller spheres of social engagement.
Those bubbles are radicalized by algorithms that promote the most inflammatory content (stacking up those addictive “likes,”) thereby suppressing less incendiary material.
These bubbles become so powerful that people lose contact with larger spheres of interaction, including in-person connections.
Low quality engagement on social media platforms fuels diminished attention spans.
Oppressive governments, cults and hate groups can use Facebook into a lethal tool for oppression and mob violence.
To protect its business model, Facebook has catered to far right groups, dragging their feet in response to abuses of their platform by hate groups and fascists.
If you’re old enough to remember previous moral panics over television, video games or subversive music, almost everything on this list will look familiar. From “dumbed-down” content, to the alleged addictiveness of the platform, to the anecdotes of outrageous incidents the technology has spawned, these criticisms have been leveled in one form or another against every innovation since the printing press. Most of these concerns were covered in Aldous Huxley’s critique of modernism, A Brave New World a century ago. He didn’t invent the genre.
A 15th century German Abbott, Johannes Trithemius, wrote a dissertation, In Praise of Scribes, on the corrosive influence of the printing press. Like the makers of The Social Dilemma who depend on viral social media posts to promote their anti-social media screed, Trithemius had to submit to the dreaded printing press to get people to read his work. He explained that the new-fangled communication platform had undermined the deep learning that comes from hand-copying a manuscript.
He who ceases the work of a scribe because of printing is not a true friend of Scripture, because heeding no more than the present he takes no care to educate posterity. But we, dearest brothers, heeding the reward of this sacred labor we will not cease our work, even if we have many thousands of printed volumes. Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence.
He wasn’t wrong, but he was wrong. True, nothing can replace the depth of engagement that comes from copying a text in its entirety, but the benefits of having far more information outweigh that benefit.
Of course, the printing press could barely hold a quill against the threat posed by the telephone. In 1889, Charles Hallock published a call to arms against the dangers of the telephone in the scientific journal, Nature. He was worried about electricity in general, but the telephone was a threat of unique potency in the way that it reached into the privacy of the home, inventing necessities out of mere convenience, an early reference to technology addiction.
The telephone is the most dangerous of all because it enters into every dwelling. Its interminable network of wires is a perpetual menace to life and property. In its best performance it is only a convenience. It was never a necessity. In a multitude of cities its service is unsatisfactory and is being dispensed with. It may not be expedient that it should be wholly abolished, but its operation may be so curtailed and systematized as to render it comparatively innocuous.
Every generation sees doom in innovation. Author Douglas Adams in his book, The Salmon of Doubt, summed up this genre of moral panic over the young:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Our spasm of panic about social media bears the hallmarks of every previous reaction to innovation. How compelling are these criticisms on their own terms?
Does Facebook collect a lot of data about us? Yes. Is it markedly more or better data than others have collected in the past, or what is available from other vendors? It doesn’t seem to be. And the relative transparency of Facebook’s data collection, along with the control they grant users over its use, is remarkable compared to the surrounding environment.
Have you ever looked at the data being collected, correlated, and aggregated with other sources from your grocery store loyalty card? Of course not. You can’t unless you buy the data. Even then, you won’t be able to see how that data is integrated with other sources to build a comprehensive picture not just of you (because none of us individually are very interesting to advertisers), but of your community and your wider demographic category. Serious political candidates have been buying and leveraging this data for decades, going back to Kennedy, correlating market data with voter files to shape their campaigns. Frankly, it has never worked very well. It still doesn’t.
Lacking access to most of my commercial activity, Facebook is at a serious disadvantage in data collection against older entrenched platforms, particularly credit reporting agencies, transaction processing engines, and Amazon. If I don’t choose to share my location, Facebook has trouble even determining accurately where I live, the anchor for most advertising of any kind. Back when the platform still tried to identify users by demographic category Facebook thought I was black. When advertisers want to build predictable user profiles they rely on better quality data from other platforms to build targeted ads that might later appear on Facebook.
Perhaps the most comedic element of the case against Facebook centers around the 2016 Election’s most successful grifters, Cambridge Analytica and Trump campaign guru Brad Parscale. Cambridge used a series of Facebook scams in an effort to steal unauthorized data from users, data they couldn’t legitimately get from Facebook, to construct a magical “psychographic analysis” on voters to manipulate their behavior. This incident sparked justifiable outrage, but also a cottage industry of punditry around the horrifying sci-fi implications of data-driven election manipulation. The problem? Cambridge never figured out how to make any of it work. That didn’t stop journalists from freaking out about the power Cambridge supposedly wielded.
They were selling snake oil. Voter profiles Cambridge delivered to the Cruz campaign, for example, were utter garbage, largely false or inaccurate. The Cruz campaign fired them after squandering over $5m on the scam.
Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s chaotic, ramshackle 2016 campaign, claims his magical Facebook analytics helped him anticipate that his candidate would produce the unlikely royal flush that placed him in the White House. Parscale, who allegedly contracted with Cambridge for data in 2016, claimed he’d be using an even better version in 2020, an effort he stupidly titled “The Death Star.”
Parscale, who was a small-time grifter with a minor web business before ’16, has built an 8-figure fortune from his campaign work, contributing to the campaign’s otherwise inexplicable money problems. There remains no evidence that either Parscale or Cambridge accomplished anything with their purported analytics other than to dazzle their marks with splashy words and promises. Parscale was demoted from his position leading the Trump reelection campaign back in the summer over flagging poll numbers and the Tulsa campaign rally debacle. The Daily Mail reports that he is under investigation for embezzling campaign funds. Now he’s in a psychiatric facility following his drunken arrest over domestic violence. Claims that Facebook data can be used to manipulate voters like marionettes appear to be largely bunk, fed in a damaging feedback loop by charlatans and the handwringing technophobes who take them seriously.
Does inflammatory content attract more eyeballs? Of course, just ask PBS. At the height of one of our earlier moral panics over violence on TV, PBS’s distinguished Frontline series broadcast a documentary with the sober, well-considered title, Does TV Kill. The answer, predictably enough, was no, but that didn’t stop the editors from preferring the glossy clickbait title over a more nuanced alternative. That’s how a media advertising model has worked since the first broadsheets were published in London in the 17th century. No one survives in a media business without winning a battle for readers’ attention, and you don’t win that battle on depth and nuance alone.
What about those sinister algorithms that prioritize extreme content? Facebook’s algorithms are designed to learn what I want to see and give me more of it, increasing both my time on the site and the depth of my engagement with others. There’s nothing mystical about it. The company publishes detailed descriptions of how it works so that advertisers can understand its potential. The company has been working for years to swim against its users’ tendency to flock toward inflammatory and abusive content by trying to single out and demote those who exploit this tendency. They aren’t doing it because they love us. They’re doing it because fake news, spam and hate speech interfere with their mission and threaten the platform’s power. Who is evolving whom?
Does feedback on Facebook deliver a dopamine rush though tools like the “like” button? Naturally. Is that rush powerful enough to drown out competition from sports broadcasting, video games, Netflix, other social media platforms, the “ding” of a text message on my phone, time with family, time with friends, or even the lure of an hour of peace with a good book? Data suggests it isn’t.
Despite building a platform of mythic addictive power, Facebook usage has been dropping in the US. Among users under 20, supposedly the most vulnerable to Facebook’s electric crack, barely half were using the platform in 2018, down from almost three quarters in 2015. Facebook has been shedding young members by the millions each year in the developed world while the site becomes dominated by members over 50. Seniors are now the fastest growing segment of Facebook users while overall engagement on the platform continues to decline.
Anecdotes about terrible events being planned or organized over Facebook, like the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, treat those events as though they never existed previously and wouldn’t have happened absent the platform. Somehow we all forgot that the Rwanda genocide was orchestrated over the radio. The John Birch Society and the KKK were remarkably successful at spreading conspiracies and racism back when you still had to pay for a long-distance call. Our most lethal act of domestic terrorism happened in 1995, amid a spate of right-wing militia recruitment based on wild conspiracy theories, at a time when few homes had access to the Internet. Ron Paul rose from provincial nutcase to Presidential contender on the strength of his 1980’s racist conspiracy newsletters. If Facebook has changed the landscape of hatred and paranoia in the US, it’s by pulling back the curtain on what’s always been there.
Does Facebook cater to right wing publishers and foster hate speech? No. It’s often mentioned that right wing sources are among Facebook’s more popular links but look again at those usage statistics. Content on Facebook is shaped by its user base and the site earned a write-up in AARP magazine for having the oldest user base among social media users. What content do over-50 users most want to see? That lean among its most common news shares is a product of its users, and its aging users are the most conservative slice of the American public.
As for the bubbles social media is supposed to create, good luck finding one on Facebook. What you’ll find there is rancor fostered by the opposite phenomenon – comfortable bubbles we used to inhabit in the days before social media being punctured by the relative breadth of these new platforms. On Facebook, every day is your family’s most raucous Thanksgiving.
We feel like Facebook has left us divided because before we started sharing so much of our lives there, we didn’t know that Uncle Chester was a Nazi, or that our beloved 10th grade History teacher thought the government was making frogs gay. Back in the 90’s when Clinton conspiracy theories inspired a mass expansion of racist militias and the Oklahoma City bombing, our information bubbles hid from us the reach and terror of those movements. Facebook provided a new avenue to discover the crazy that had long been spreading among our friends and family, while delivering an environment of unprecedented safety in which to finally confront that spread.
Facebook, and our culture at large, is experiencing a paroxysm of conflict because millions of people who once had to shut up and take it are finding a safe channel to share their experiences. Facebook is stirring up the right kind of conflict, with a predictable backlash. How quickly did Black Lives Matter and MeToo move from a narrow corner of the Internet to near-universal exposure? How much more time and resources would it have taken for these movements to gain traction without social media? Look at the galaxy of grassroots resistance movements that sprung up after the ’16 Election, many creating significant in-person neighborhood involvement. How long would it have taken to organize the Women’s March or the March for Science absent social media?
What we’re missing through our neurotic panic over social media, at great risk to our future, is the power these platforms have placed in our hands. If there’s anything destabilizing and scary about Facebook, it’s the degree of power it wrenches away from established cultural centers and redistributes to individuals. It’s that devolution of power which is rocking political systems. As with the printing press, no one is going to close our social media Pandora’s Box, but many will try. And as with the printing press, railroads, electricity and the telephone, it will be the countries or cultures which most successfully embrace the democratizing power of social media who race ahead of those who shrink in fear of its destabilizing influence.
What’s the most important factor inspiring optimism about Facebook? It sits squarely in the space left empty by decades of declining “social capital” investment in our society.
Those who seek to concentrate wealth and power at the expense of others need to limit the capacity of ordinary people to cooperate and share ideas. Elites are, by definition, always outnumbered. Sustaining their power depends on leveraging superior information sharing and coordination. Masses and elites are locked in an ever-escalating arms race in which the elites’ greatest advantage is their access to better information. Since the printing press, this is a race that elites have been slowly and steadily losing, with the result that more and more people are able to live safe, free and prosperous lives than in the past. Social media marks perhaps an even greater watershed moment in that long power-shift than the printing press.
Our political system was built on networks of deep, local, social interaction. A mesh of local organizations provided a counterbalance for ordinary people against the organizational and information advantages of elites. From early town halls and artisans’ clubs to modern service organizations, sports clubs, churches and even PTA’s, participation in these local groups knit people together, forming an ecosystem of information sharing, coordination, and vetting of representatives that contained the influence of extremists and gave democracy its participatory foundation.
Scholars like Robert Putnam have been warning for decades about the declining power of our social capital institutions. The rapid expansion of personal freedom and affluence that we have experienced in the final quarter of the 20th century had a strange economic effect on local personal engagement. It has made it radically more expensive. Time required to remain engaged in the Elks Club or the Boy Scouts comes at a higher premium than ever thanks to a far richer palate of alternatives. Our time is now far more valuable than it has ever been.
These in-person social capital institutions used to limit elite power. As their power declines, our next best hope is to fill the gaps with online social networks. Is online engagement as powerful and virtuous as in-person connections? I don’t know, is reading a bunch of printed books as intellectually enriching as copying them painstakingly by hand? It’s the wrong question to ask. Social networks take the process of building social capital into the platforms where we now invest most of our attention, giving social capital institutions the speed, reach and power they need to remain relevant.
Back in 1970, how much effort would it have taken to organize neighbors to resist the placement of a polluting factory in their town? Today, it might take as much as ten minutes to build a Facebook page. With a click I could invite all my friends to support the effort. And for about $20 I could promote the campaign to everyone Facebook identified as living in my town. Social capital meets social media.
No need to find a venue and schedule time for an in-person coordination session. Discussion can proceed in real time through comments and messages. Results could be seen days later with citizens appearing at a city council meeting to press their case. Or the effort could continue remotely through economic boycotts, messages to representatives, even petitions to corporate boards. Facebook is an opportunity for democracy to adapt and grow.
Perhaps the best evidence of Facebook’s democratizing power can be revealed in the places where it is unavailable. Which countries have banned Facebook? China, North Korea, Iran and Syria. Authoritarian governments in India and Turkey are far and away the big leaders in requests to delete Facebook content.
From polarization to spam, the problems of social media are the problems of democracy. They can be addressed through pressure on platform owners along with growing sophistication among users, much the same formula we leveraged to temper the abuses of an unregulated, free news media. What should not be missed is the remarkable potential of these digital platforms to grant ordinary people leverage against the information and organizational advantages of elites.
Facebook’s stated mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” It is succeeding, though that gift comes with its share of curses. We are closer together than ever before and we aren’t entirely loving the experience. The printing press opened the world to destabilization that would eventually produce our democracy. Burning the printing press would have been a mistake, a lost opportunity for freedom and human progress.
Who evolved the potato, the farmers or the potatoes? Both were acting inside an evolutionary fabric, adapting to changing environmental demands. Social media is one more tool in our evolutionary arsenal, and Facebook is among its more promising adaptations. Facebook and other social media platforms are tools to knit people together, building connections that aggregate their power and check the abuses of elites. There are good reasons to like Facebook.