Fighting Facebook’s Power with More Facebook

on February 23, 2017
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook a combination of a personal and company manifesto. He also spoke to a variety of reporters regarding it. The manifesto is long and covers a ton of ground, some of it about the state of the world but much of it, at least indirectly and directly, about Facebook and its role in such a world. The manifesto is notable for its concession that Facebook has enormous power and has, in some ways, contributed to some big problems plaguing the world but, more worryingly, it seems to think the solution is more Facebook.

There has been rising concern about Facebook’s power over many facets of our lives for years now and the concern is especially strong when it comes to news and media consumption where Facebook is becoming an ever more important channel. Because Facebook’s algorithms determine which things users could be shown they actually see, Facebook bears a primary responsibility for making decisions about the media world its users live in.

Facebook’s incentives are to show people the things they’re most likely to enjoy, engage with, and share with their friends. But the assumption is this means showing them things that fit with their existing views rather than challenging them. It means it often ends up creating so-called “filter bubbles” in which people are only ever exposed to media which confirms their existing views and only rarely to contradictory views.

Zuckerberg’s manifesto acknowledges all of this but proposes solutions which are focused on Facebook itself, rather than on weaning people off their reliance on Facebook. That’s understandable – his job is to get people to use Facebook more rather than less but, of course, this approach merely reinforces Facebook’s power and potentially even increases it as it takes a more active role in showing people a range of content. This is a theme which flows throughout the post, talking about all the things Facebook can do to take an even bigger and stronger role in the lives of its users.

Nowhere is this more striking than when he starts talking about participation in the democratic process:

The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.

That, to me, sounds like Zuckerberg envisions a world in which Facebook itself becomes the medium through which communities (i.e. cities, states, countries) would govern themselves. Given existing concerns about Facebook’s power to shape media consumption, the idea it would take a direct role in governance (rather than merely allowing people to vote or connect with their elected representatives as it has done in the past) should be terrifying.

It’s arguable that even Facebook’s “Get Out the Vote” efforts have potential to distort the democratic process, given that usage skews younger than the overall population. But at least it doesn’t give Facebook a direct role in the democratic process itself. If I were a local government, I’d be extremely wary of allowing Facebook a deeper role in any of these processes – I think it’s time for both individuals and organizations to push back against Facebook’s enormous power rather than embracing an expansion of it.

But this concern should go beyond just the democratic process and institutions – we should all be thinking about how much power we want Facebook to have over our lives. A line that was removed from the manifesto between when a draft was sent out to reporters and when the final version was published on Facebook hints at some other dangers. That line concerned the use of AI to detect terrorism:

The long term promise of AI is that in addition to identifying risks more quickly and accurately than would have already happened, it may also identify risks that nobody would have flagged at all — including terrorists planning attacks using private channels, people bullying someone too afraid to report it themselves, and other issues both local and global. It will take many years to develop these systems.

On the face of it, this seems great – Facebook would be helping to identify those who would hurt others while they’re still in the planning stages. But it refers to terrorists using private channels, which implies Facebook looking into the contents of private messages shared between users on Facebook’s various platforms. This is yet another area where Facebook’s power is already considerable – not only does it control much of our media consumption but it also hosts and carries much of our communication via four huge platforms: Facebook itself, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

Facebook’s instincts here are understandable but also worrying. It finally recognizes its power and the ways in which that power has caused problems in the world but its instinct is to wield that power even more, rather than back off. Given Facebook seems unlikely to police itself, it’s up to its users and other organizations to start to exert pressure for it to do so.