It’s impossible to root for Facebook. It’s like rooting for the New England Patriots. (Sorry, Pats fans.) Besides partisans and kooks, who could side with an organization that is successful beyond belief, skirts the rules and is led by an all-powerful boss facing serious legal questions? And unlike the sports team, Facebook wields enormous influence over how the world thinks and interacts.
I don’t root for the Patriots, or Facebook. But I’m uneasy about the growing calls for Facebook to be split into pieces, including the op-ed Thursday from Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s co-founders. The overriding questions that nag at me: What problems are we trying to solve, and does a breakup really address them?
I don’t have the answers. But I worry that “break up Facebook” has become a catchall, soothing solution to the feeling that Facebook is bad and something should be done about it. A breakup may be the right approach. But I want advocates to start by uniting people around the root problems and working backward to possible fixes before we all back a Standard Oil-style dismantlement.
Here are three problems I have with Facebook, and how a breakup might affect them:
1) Facebook has huge treasure troves of personal information.
Facebook has vast knowledge about how the world spends its time on and off its internet hangouts, and in the real world. It hasn’t always been a reliable steward of that information, and Facebook hasn’t adequately justified why it needs all of it in the first place.
Let’s say Facebook is split into multiple companies – the core Facebook social network, Instagram and WhatsApp, as Hughes suggests. Does a core Facebook with perhaps 1 billion users have less ability to harvest information such as people’s web-surfing habits and physical locations as they roam around with smartphones? No, it doesn’t.
It’s true that a stand-alone Facebook wouldn’t know what people are doing on an independent Instagram and an independent WhatsApp, just as Facebook isn’t harvesting specific information now from people’s use of YouTube and Snapchat. I don’t know, however, that those limits would blunt Facebook’s aggressive data-harvesting machine.
2) Facebook has outsized influence over what people think, do and buy.
This is undoubtedly true, and scary. Google, Facebook and a handful of other global technology superpowers are incredibly influential in what information people see or don’t.
Facebook has been a megaphone to demagogues, a platform to sow ethnic violence and an echo chamber that’s helped fan dangerous conspiracy theories. It can also be a bridge to connect people with shared interests and make us feel less alone. When any single entity has the power to touch and influence billions of people, we are right to ask whether it should exist.
That might be the strongest argument I can think of for blunting Facebook’s power through an enforced breakup. That would mean, however, that we need to agree on the root cause of this dangerous aspect of Facebook. Do we believe that no single platform can reach 2.7 billion people a month without doing more harm than good? (Follow up question: What about Google?) Or the size of Facebook’s audience isn’t the problem, but it’s the black-box algorithm that’s the problem? Or it’s Facebook’s cultural rot and repeated failures to set and enforce rules of healthy online behavior? A breakup would pare Facebook’s reach, but I think we need to decide what makes Facebook’s power so particularly pernicious, and how to address it.
3) Facebook uses its power to squash or co-opt rivals.
This is true, but not the whole story. Facebook does have competition, and much to fear. Facebook missed that people might want to communicate in private, short-lived digital chats as they do on Snapchat. It’s missing the frivolity happening on the Tik Tok music-video app. And Apple and Google remain the front doors to smartphones, which are the primary way that billions of people access the internet. Yes, Facebook and its constellation of apps are unrivaled communications tools and using them has become a necessity of digital life. But the company’s hold isn’t unchallenged nor may it be permanent.
Again, I’m not saying Facebook is fine. The company went unchecked for far too long. We’re awake now to Facebook’s power and its malfeasance.
Awareness isn’t enough, of course. Facebook must be forced to better defend against politically minded propaganda and ethnic hate, and it should ditch live video. There should be more limits on the kind of personal information Facebook gathers, how long it keeps it and what it does with it. The company and regulators have tackled some of these issues, but there are few easy answers or quick fixes.
For its own part, Facebook said Thursday that breaking up a successful company won’t enforce accountability, and instead repeated calls for new regulations. Maybe so. Or maybe the problems that Facebook’s power and influence have created are so encompassing that they can’t be rooted out without more radical measures.
For sure, the public and regulators should keep the pressure on Facebook permanently. I worry, however, that we won’t heal the underlying rot if we break up the Facebook family without uniting around what problems we’re trying to solve.