Dan Gillmor, a veteran journalist and professor, wrote in 2016, “We will be living in the ecosystem of a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness, an enterprise that would become the primary newsstand for journalism and would be free to pick the winners via special deals with media people and tweaks of its opaque algorithms. If this is the future, we are truly screwed.”
Four years later, his prophecy about Facebook seems closer than ever.
Never in the history of the republic has a single company posed such a menace to our form of self-government. It is especially amplified as we hurtle to a presidential election of historic importance.
On the world’s largest social-media platform, facts are given the same weight as lies or so-called fake news. The latter assumed dangerous proportions during the pandemic, but also in undermining settled science about human-caused climate change and the legitimacy of the election.
Facebook is an unwitting partner of QAnon, which peddles far-right conspiracy theories — e.g., the world is run by a satanic cabal from which only President Donald Trump can save the country.
It also disseminates lies about voter fraud and the U.S. Postal Service. Worse, QAnon is connected to real-world violence and militia groups.
Facebook’s internal probe found that it was being used by thousands of groups associated with QAnon, with millions of members. A crackdown by the company has failed so far as the movement dodges restrictions placed by the company.
Globally, the harm has been even greater.
In Myanmar, the military government used Facebook to incite genocidal hatred against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Only in 2018 did the company admit its complicity and apologize.
Yet Facebook didn’t seem to learn.
This year the platform is being blamed for worsening ethnic violence in Ethiopia. As Vice News put it, “This bloodshed was supercharged by the almost-instant and widespread sharing of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook, which whipped up people’s anger. Mobs destroyed and burned property. They lynched, beheaded, and dismembered their victims.”
All this might come as a shock to people who use the platform to share family photos or wish friends happy birthday, perhaps enjoying a local history page. Facebook comes in many flavors for its 2.7 billion monthly active users — about 190 million in the United States.
The reader should know that I’m on the platform. It’s useful to share my columns and news about my books. I’ve reconnected with friends from as far back as elementary school. But I don’t know most of my 2,626 “friends.”
Knowing Facebook is a time-suck, I try to limit myself to two short visits a day. And I would never, never rely on the platform for news. I happily subscribe to nine real newspapers committing real journalism.
As a result, I’m not the ideal Facebook user.
Social media is addictive, creepily rewiring our brains. Facebook wants repeat users all day for as long as possible. Its algorithm “recommendation engine” is designed to send users down ever-increasing rabbit holes.
And Facebook sees itself as a 21st century news site, underwritten by revenues from its dominant control of online advertising. It is effectively a monopoly at what it does, which is very bad for the serious journalism needed to inform a self-governing people.
As the Columbia Journalism Review put it in 2018, “Facebook’s relationship with the media has been a classic Faustian bargain: News outlets want to reach those 2 billion users, so they put as much of their content as they can on the network. Some of them are favored by the company’s all-powerful (and completely mysterious) algorithm, giving them access to a wider audience to pitch for subscriptions or the pennies worth of ad revenue they receive from the platform.”
Facebook and Google are expected to control 85% of the global digital ad market. The CJR wrote that “Facebook’s increasing dominance of that industry poses an existential threat to their business models.”
A quarter of all newspapers have died in the past 15 years.
To be sure, newspapers made their share of mistakes before the old business model collapsed. I had a front-row seat as a manager at three major newspaper chains. But no “legacy media” had Facebook’s near monopoly. And Facebook doesn’t practice actual journalism, meaning an effort at factual reporting, balance, fairness and sound news judgment.
Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded Facebook while at Harvard, isn’t a journalist. But with $98 billion net worth, third on Forbes list of richest people in the U.S. behind Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, he enjoys not only wealth but also political power.
His and Facebook’s place in the Digital Gilded Age is not only a threat to a healthy, competitive economy but also to American democracy.