The social-media giant can't — and won't — police itself. Our addiction is a more complicated problem.
In the olden days, Microsoft was accused by the federal government of using monopoly power to solidify its towering dominance of software and internet browsers.
But neither the feds nor its harshest critics in Silicon Valley ever blamed “the beast of Redmond” for helping Russia swing a presidential election or undermining democracy through the spread of lies to hundreds of millions of people.
Microsoft didn’t manipulate the personal information of users, adopt a casual attitude to the security of users’ personal information or engage in a sophisticated, scorched-earth campaign to cover its tracks and stifle criticism.
No, that had to wait a few years. For Facebook.
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Compared with Mark Zuckerberg’s social-media monster, the beast of Redmond — which today is the one member of Big Tech to have achieved respectability among former critics — was a mere lamb.
A time not so long ago would also have seen the recent 6,000-word, New York Times investigative article on Facebook produce severe consequences. Congressional hearings, regulatory action, an embarrassed board of directors ousting the chairman and chief executive.
Not now; at least, not yet. Zuckerberg is especially protected by being Facebook’s majority shareholder. As a result, he has refused calls to step aside as chairman, separating the job from CEO, so that even minimal corporate governance could be implemented.
Among the NYT’s revelations were top executives’ downplaying and looking aside regarding Russian interference, and working with an opposition-research firm to discredit critics. The firm, Definers Public Affairs, also tried to link anti-Facebook activists to George Soros, longtime bugbear of conservatives.
Facebook pushed back against the thrust of the article and fired Definers. This does little to diminish the credibility of the deep reporting that went into the NYT piece — for anyone paying attention.
Yet in the minute-by-minute flood of information facing Americans — including real political scandals and the existential threat of climate change — Zuckerberg must assume he can ride it out with his boyish appearance and public face of concern. One of the Mississippis of that flood is Facebook itself.
This is a person who has essentially likened himself to Caesar Augustus.
If we continue on this trajectory, both gave the coup de grace to republics. But any resemblance stops there. The first Roman emperor was a soldier, statesman and won a cameo appearance in the Bible.
Zuckerberg was a clever hacker at the right time to be wildly compensated by the Digital Gilded Age’s distorted system of market rewards. Being a ruthless empire-builder in corporate America isn’t the same as in sword-and-shield antiquity.
Meanwhile, Sheryl Sandberg exposes how the mere presence of women at the top of corporations won’t lead to a new age of decency and integrity. In the New York Times story, the Facebook chief operating officer comes off like any swell with power. Lean in, sure.
Facebook’s role in the Russia election scandal alone should make it the first target for new regulation. It’s too big, like so many companies hurting our economy now, but its bigness has an especially sinister quality. That springs from its ability to mine the information on a huge user base and, apparently, manipulate them.
No wonder Rep. David Cicilline tweeted that “Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself.” He might lead the House subcommittee dealing with antitrust issues in the new Congress.
The European Union’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation is a good template for limiting how digital giants employ users’ data, even if American lawmakers are unlikely to go this far.
But we also must look in a mirror. Nobody put a gun to our heads and forced us to spend hours on social media.
My Facebook experience has been mostly good (Seattle Times journalists are encouraged to be on FB and Twitter). Here’s why: I use it to promote my columns and author events. The network has also allowed me to reconnect with friends from grade school and high school.
Otherwise, I try to avoid the time-suck. Being a lifelong newspaper reader, I would never rely on Facebook for “news.” Apparently I am in the minority there.
George Orwell never anticipated how the devils of the internet would make Big Brother almost unnecessary.
But Neil Postman did, in his prescient 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” He was writing about television, but its wasteland was nothing compared with addictive social media.
“Disinformation does not mean false information,” Postman wrote. “It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”
This is part of the Facebook problem. The other is the feral greed of top executives in stoking it, even if part of the bargain smells very close to being accessory to treason, at least to me.
When I was an editor, I had a ready response for people who said, “My kids don’t read newspapers.” I replied, “But the people who will run your kids’ lives do read them.”
Indeed, the tech elite severely limits or outright bans screen time for their children.
But most Americans, it seems, are happy to amuse themselves to the death of self-governance and civilization. It’s bread and circuses that would have made Augustus envious.