Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscribers only): Facebook Delenda Est
Trump hosted Zuckerberg for undisclosed dinner at the White House in October (NBC)
“President Donald Trump hosted a previously undisclosed dinner with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Peter Thiel at the White House in October, the company told NBC News on Wednesday.
Zuckerberg also gave a speech at Georgetown University the week before, detailing his company’s commitment to free speech, and its resistance to calls for the company to crack down on misinformation in political advertisements.
It is unclear why the meeting was not made public or what Trump, Zuckerberg and Thiel discussed.
The White House declined to comment.“
Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics (WSJ)
“The company’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to Mr. Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence, said the current and former employees.
Ms. Das, whose job also includes lobbying India’s government on Facebook’s behalf, told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users, the current and former employees said.“
Facebook’s Zuckerberg promises Merkel action on hate speech (Deutsche Welle)
“Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Saturday promised German Chancellor Angela Merkel that his company would work on measures to combat racist and hateful comments on the social media platform.
This comes after German Justice Minister Heiko Maas met with Facebook representatives in Berlin in mid-September following the posting of a number of right-wing extremist and racist comments about refugees.
Maas had expressed bewilderment that photos considered to be indecent were quickly deleted, while hate speech postings were often left on Facebook pages even after users had complained. Merkel had also called on the company to take measures to fight mass incitement.”
So … I’m pretty close to being a free speech absolutist. Or at least I have an old-school small-l liberal John Stuart Mill-esque belief in free speech, with an extremely high bar for the “harm” that speech must directly inflict on other citizens before a rightfully constituted government, based on the consent of its citizens, has a legitimate duty to regulate that speech.
And I believe that the US Supreme Court has been pretty much spot-on with its free speech decisions like Brandenburg v. Ohio and R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, where they said (roughly speaking) that even speech calling for violent protest against the government is protected speech and that hate speech isn’t a thing. Let me repeat that last one. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly held that hate speech is not a thing.
I think this is exactly right.
To be clear, I also believe that a private organization has the right to apply hate speech standards (or any other speech standards) to its members, if those members have the ability to leave the private organization AND that organization does not enjoy unique government support. So, for example, if I choose to attend a private religious college, and they have rules against hateful/blasphemous speech, then it’s fine for them to kick me out when I start doing my hateful blasphemous speech thing. I’d never go to that college in the first place, and there are plenty of other schools I can attend. But if ALL colleges started imposing hate speech standards, or if the ONLY college started imposing hate speech standards, or if ANY public college started imposing hate speech standards … well, I’d have a real problem with any of these circumstances.
And I believe that a just government has a duty to intervene in these circumstances.
Now I also believe that the US Supreme Court got it terribly, terribly wrong with Citizens United, where they decided (again, roughly speaking) that non-real life citizens – like corporations or other constructed legal entities – enjoy the same protections for political speech that real life citizens do. I’ll repeat that one, too. The US Supreme Court has held that constructed entities of pooled capital (corporations) or pooled labor (unions) or pooled political influence (parties) have the same protection for their political speech as unconstructed/unpooled you and unconstructed/unpooled me.
I think this is nuts.
To be clear, I also believe that limitations on how much money or time real life citizens can spend on their political speech are similarly nuts. So, for example, I believe that really rich American citizens like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or George Soros or Charles Koch can spend as much money as they please – literally billions of dollars if they want – to proclaim whatever cockamamie political idea they want to proclaim. What is unacceptable in my view – but is exactly what Citizens United allows – is for really rich guys to spend unlimited amounts of money on political speech after they are dead, or (worse!) for corporations and unions and parties to spend unlimited amounts of other people’s money on political speech, with the same legal protections as real life citizens.
Government does not exist to protect the rights of a dead rich guy’s money. Government does not exist to protect the rights of corporations, unions and political parties. Government EXISTS to protect the unalienable rights of its citizens, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Do foundations and corporations and unions and political parties have rights? Do they enjoy the protection of our laws? Of course!
Can foundations and corporations and unions and political parties speak on the issues of the day? Sure!
But foundations and corporations and unions and political parties are conveniences, not citizens. They exist because they are useful efficiencies, not because they possess unalienable rights. They are not the same as voting citizens, and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people is under zero obligation to extend the same protections to the political voices of these non-people as it must to its actual people, much less MORE protections.
But that’s where we are today.
These non-people … these non-citizen, non-voting, artificially constructed legalistic entities of pooled capital, labor or influence … they enjoy MORE free speech protections than you and me.
And I believe that a just government has a duty to do something about that, too.
Now if you don’t mind, please hold those two thoughts …
1. Ben doesn’t think that hate speech is a thing. Ben also thinks there are (limited) circumstances where a just government must reach into private organizations to prevent them from applying hate speech standards.
2. Ben doesn’t think that constructed entities like foundations and corporations and unions and political parties should enjoy the same free speech protections as real life citizens. Ben also thinks – and this is at the heart of what he wants to BITFD – that these constructed entities actually enjoy far more free speech protections from our government than the real life citizens our government was established to protect.
… and let’s talk for a minute about Facebook.
The following facts are, I believe, not contentious. They are, I believe, clear and obvious facts to any observer of Facebook policy in the three markets that are most important to Facebook – the United States, India and Europe.
Fact #1: Facebook has constructed a standard of what they consider to be political hate speech and announced that they intend to apply it on their platforms within the United States, India and Europe.
Fact #2: Facebook applies this hate speech standard with rigor and unswerving attention against specifically the group who (IMO) should never have a hate speech standard applied against them … individual, real life citizens of the United States, India and Europe.
Fact #3: Facebook does NOT apply this hate speech standard with rigor and unswerving attention against the group who (again IMO) might well have a hate speech standard applied against them … powerful non-citizen entities of pooled capital/labor/influence both internal and external to the United States, India and Europe. In fact, the more powerful the non-citizen entity of pooled capital/labor/influence might be over Facebook’s business model, the more Facebook turns a blind eye to any violation of the hate speech standard by that entity and the more Facebook cracks down on any violation of the hate speech standard by that entity’s political opponents … particularly the small and helpless ones.
Sure, the Facebook hate speech policy is all wrapped up in powerful narratives of “Yay, Science!” and “Yay, Democracy!” and “Boo, Terrorists!”, and sure, Mark cleans up real nice when he goes to Georgetown and name drops Elijah Cummings, Frederick Douglass, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, Air Force moms, the war in Iraq, and Martin Luther King Jr. (I am not making this up) all within the space of a few paragraphs in his speech, “Zuckerberg: Standing For Voice and Free Expression“.
That’s the actual title of his speech, as provided by Facebook to the Washington Post, where they published it verbatim: “Zuckerberg: Standing For Voice and Free Expression”. You know, just in case you weren’t sure what cartoon Mark was trying to project. Again, I am not making this up.
But in truth, this is all just Free Speech Theater.
Facebook is not a content-delivery platform. Its business is not to “give people voice and bring people together”, as Zuckerberg says in his best cartoon voice.
Facebook is an advertising-delivery platform.
Facebook’s business – its entire reason for being – is to sell as many ads as possible based on free, user-generated content. Contentious, inflammatory user-generated content is great for selling ads – particularly if it IS an ad – but the content can’t be so contentious that it generates a popular backlash, reducing demand/usage, or that it makes the ruling powers-that-be angry, generating a fine or some other profit-reducing regulation.
THAT’S the algorithm that Facebook is trying to solve. THAT’S the determining constraint on Mark Zuckerberg’s “commitment” to free speech.
In every crucial jurisdiction where Facebook does business, Mark Zuckerberg meets privately with the chief executive of that market and works out a political accommodation.
What’s your biggest “free speech” concern [wink, wink], Mr. or Mrs. Chief Executive, and how can Facebook tailor its policies to help you out?
- In the United States, Zuckerberg has dinner with Trump. Amazingly enough, Facebook does not apply its “fact-checking” or “hate speech” controls to political ads.
- In India, Zuckerberg has dinner with Modi. Amazingly enough, Facebook does not apply its hate speech controls to prominent members of the ruling BJP party.
- In Germany, Zuckerberg has dinner with Merkel. Amazingly enough, Facebook expands its hate speech controls to shut down and marginalize content critical of German refugee and immigration policy.
And in return, across all of these crucial markets, Facebook enjoys unique government support for a communications and social media platform – Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram – that is impossible for a US citizen or an Indian citizen or a German citizen to escape.
And that’s the rub.
Swearing off Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram is no solution here. There is no meaningful way to opt out of a ubiquitous and universal communications and social media platform, because the system of a ubiquitous and universal communications and social media platform is impervious to your individual decision. It’s like saying that you’re going to opt out of Covid-19. Sure, you can move off the grid into the Alaskan wilderness and not get sick. Knock yourself out. But that’s not a meaningful definition of opting out. Barring that sort of absurd action, however, your exposure to the virus, whether it’s the virus of SARS-CoV-2 or the virus of Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram, isn’t so much dependent on your actions as it is on everyone else’s actions.
These are the conditions under which a just government must reach down into a private organization like Facebook and turn their pernicious hate speech standards completely on its head.
Which leads us to the George Costanza legislative fix for Facebook.
Like George, every instinct that Mark Zuckerberg has regarding free speech is wrong, and so Facebook should be required by law to do the exact opposite of what they’re doing today.
Specifically, that means that it is precisely the slick political ads and user-generated content from non-real life citizens like corporations, unions and political parties that Facebook should scrutinize carefully and hold to some fact-checking and hate speech standard. It is precisely the gross and insulting and hateful and mean-spirited user-generated content from real life citizens that Facebook should let slide.
I know. LOL. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that any legislative body in the world would ever pass this sort of law. But a guy can dream, right?
Barring this sort of legislative fix to the core Facebook business model, the only other solution I see is to tear down Facebook on antitrust grounds, by which I mean force Facebook to divest WhatsApp and Instagram (Messenger, too), and maybe hive off the Indian and European operations from the US mothership. Over time – over a LOT of time – I think that this sort of Ma Bell solution could maaaaybe weaken core Facebook to the point where users have a real choice in what communications and social media networks they use, making Facebook’s hate speech standards no less pernicious but allowing a true opt-out. But I’m not holding my breath on this solution, either.
We can see so clearly how Facebook is undermining our democracy and our most integral political rights.
We can see so clearly how Facebook has bought and paid for political cover at the highest levels of American, Indian and European government, political cover that prevents any of the actions we might take as a society to rid ourselves of this cancer.
What do I mean when I say BITFD? What is it that I want us to burn the fuck down?
This system of bought and paid for political patronage that companies like Facebook use to nudge us into social ruin.
More than 2,000 years ago, the renowned Roman soldier and orator Cato the Elder would end every speech, regardless of topic, with the phrase Carthago delenda est … roughly translated, Carthage must be destroyed.
It wasn’t that Carthage posed an imminent threat to Rome. No, Rome had already defeated Carthage soundly in two wars, and Carthage was no longer a competing empire but merely a wealthy city. It was the idea of Carthage as an alternative to traditional Roman principles that Cato believed was so dangerous … the potential of Carthaginian wealth and business prowess to subvert Rome from the inside through law and custom that Cato believed had to be stopped.
It’s exactly the same thing with Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of free speech and its proper limitations – where “hate speech standards” are rigorously enforced when it comes to individual citizens and conveniently set aside when it comes to the most powerful entities of pooled capital/labor/influence in our society – is a profound threat to liberal democracy, whether that’s in India, Europe or the United States.
Not because it competes with us from the outside. Not because it presents itself as a competent external alternative. Facebook is not China.
But because it subverts our most important principle of representative government – the free expression of a citizen’s political views – from within.
Facebook delenda est.
Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscribers only): Facebook Delenda Est
Appreciate this post Ben, it’s helped clarify for me how to think about this. I have had people in other countries - Cambodia in particular - tell me that Facebook’s network has given them an effective way to organize against a dictatorial government. But I suppose Cambodia’s government isn’t particularly powerful in a global sense so no reason for FB to be supportive of it’s goals in the same it has been with India, Germany, etc. I’ll post a link to this article on Facebook.
The power of Citizen’s United was made clear in Sen Sheldon Whitehouse’s book Captured.
Well framed Ben. Pointing out FBs core function - to sell advertising - is essentially extolling all to “follow the money”. As I read this, I couldn’t help recall that FB started as a platform to rate woman. How’d Zuck escape #metoo??
I don’t disagree with the main point, but I staunchly disagree with your contention that individuals can’t meaningfully opt out.
First off, network effects cut both ways. The usefulness of the network shrinks exponentially with the user base as much as it grew. This was immediately obvious to me when I deleted Facebook a year ago this month. Groups that I was a meaningful part of shifted off Facebook, variously to texting, email, “Teams”, Discord, and other venues. There were at least 4 grass-roots, organic groups on Facebook which transitioned off the platform to places more supportive of free speech, since the groups valued my group membership more than they valued the platform. The network effects cut both ways.This point stands directly at odds with your grassroots organization principles, as well as the source of Facebook's power. Facebook's power and vitality come solely from the messy, organic interactions that they're currently at war with, and their subservience to the nudging oligarchy is nothing but slow-motion suicide. Young people are already eschewing the platform, and with Facebook's escalating censorship the flight is accelerating. Facebook will be as aseptic and ignorable as LinkedIn and as much of a 'has-been' as Yahoo within the next decade, if not sooner.
Is Facebook’s reach unparalleled? Yes. However, the same old tools of boycotts WILL work in this case, because of one simple fact: Facebook isn’t mandatory.
This is the life-cycle of private companies that build communities. First they disrupt, then they expand, then they are co-opted by the nudging oligarchy, then they die on the vine as people move to the next disruptor that hasn’t sold out yet. As long as those moves aren’t prohibited, the system is working OK. It happened this way with torrenting, with email, with search, with browsers, with news sites (looking at you, Onion and Drudge), … heck, Facebook isn’t even the first generation of dominant online social networks, it’s the second (myspace me for details!), or maybe third if you count forums and bulletin boards.
The straw man you built in the paragraph quoted above conflates second generation social media with all social media. Sure, Twitter, instagram, Youtube, and all the other current market leaders seem like they’re in a race for the bottom (because they are), but they also seem like the only alternatives to each other, and they certainly are not that.
I think it would detract from my main point to recommend specific alternatives, so I won’t. I’d just suggest breaking down exactly where you find value in your current social media consumption, and try to find new platforms which value free speech and which fill those functions. As with every generational change it will seem obvious that Facebook is the best option until it is obvious that it isn’t.
If you make the shift then you can join the rest of us this Thanksgiving, smirking to each other about how old and boomerish Grandma is with her AOL email and her Facebook account.
Facebook delenda est, indeed.
Excellent insight as always. I would love to see you expand your commentary on the citizen’s united decision. I agree with you that corporations and other legal constructs should not have first amendment rights. My biggest problem with the decision is that it allows those with money to set up a single purpose entity to shield the spender and prevent accountability. It’s the legal equivalent of opinion laundering.
I think an individual can say whatever they want, and pay as much as they want to promote an idea, but they have to own it. No anonymity allowed. If you don’t believe strongly enough to put it out there with your name on it, then you can’t put it out there. If a politician wants to accept funding from an individual citizen, then they need to disclose who they accepted from and how much they accepted. No limits, just crystal clear disclosure. I also think that any volunteers need to be identified. Time is money. Show me how someone spends their time and their money and I will show you their priorities.
FYI, I understand that I’m being more than a little hypocritical here since I am posting under a pseudonym, but my identity has been verified with ET and could be unmasked if necessary.
Thanks for keeping the Brain humming.
When did Josh Hawley start writing for ET?
Thanks, Kevin! I was going to include FB’s negotiations with Vietnam in this note, but it was getting too long. As you might expect given that Vietnam is a much more powerful country in SE Asia, the “free speech” provisions there are not nearly so free!
Ben, this is one of your best articles. I agree with your thesis and the fix for the individuals. But I would modify the corporate fix since having any fact checker requires a person to fact check and each and every person has a bias. How do we get rid of the bias? We cannot. Also, what is your definition of a fact may be another person’s opinion. Therefore, I suggest the process of television’s old rule for political speech called “equal access,” allowing any non-person to have an alternate viewpoint that FB must reference or allow a person to click for an alternate view.
Sorry, Ben. I don’t think you seriously addressed the legal issues (or otherwise) involved in Citizens-U (or Facebook) with this snide post. The decision itself reversed in part and concurred in part and was quite complicated legally. An alternative snide post could easily be argued from the other side (actually other sides) in a similar manner. (Law Journals are filled with them.) But none will get the issues to the simple place you think they can be, as easily shown by reading the near 200-page decision itself and grappling with it honestly. As far as our Constitution goes, you’re playing bother sides against the middle and getting we the people nowhere. There is no simple solution where Zuck is the evil genius and Ben is the good guy problem solver. But nice try. This country is made up of individuals and those legalistic entities you deride. Both are essential to free speech: think this Epsilon Theory blog and The New York Times. Allowing some useless idiots to make silly movies entitled Hillary (or otherwise) that no one watched is a nothing burger in comparison. Of course, I don’t Facebook, so I am not in the throes of the Zuck mindmeld.
How can you ban something, in this case “hate speech” that “isn’t a thing”? I mean this seriously. A violent threat is illegal. Libel and slander are illegal (albeit difficult to prove). Much of what I hear called “hate speech” is merely an attempt to silence opposition. On Twitter, pro-choice groups have been very successful banning pro-life posts as “anti-woman”. A member of the mushy middle (and as it happens, pro-choice), I believe both positions worthy of discussion. Mostly, to tell me who to avoid at parties. Now I am being told “All Lives Matter” is hate speech. Are those three words, in that order, inherently racist? Who gets to make that decision?
When it comes to fact checkers, unfortunately in today’s world of the New York Times/Washington Post against Fox News, I have found “facts” to be much less stubborn than they used to be. As I recall, in the 2012 election, Romney made a claim that we would not be able to keep our doctors under Obamacare. Many fact checkers found Obama’s claim true, many (tortured) explanations were made to justify the claim. In 2013, the WaPost suddenly named the same claim the lie of the year. I wonder what changed in late 2012?
My point being, I have zero faith that Mark Zuckerberg will not use his monopoly on social media, and mobile advertising (~75% I believe), to put the finger on the scale in a way that benefits his beliefs and interests. As someone who also considers himself a near free speech absolutist, why would I trust Zuckerberg to do a better job policing speech than the government? How would Facebook overtly weighing in on “hate” or “facts” limit Zuckerberg’s ability to manipulate speech for his benefit. I believe it is an invitation for him to do so more openly and aggressively.
To say it more succinctly, your explanation doesn’t define “hate” or “facts”. I doubt anyone can, which is what makes governing speech so tricky.
But, tell me more about anti-trust solutions, because that strikes me as potentially a very, very fruitful avenue. If social media is now the town square, I am uncomfortable allowing ~75% of that speech (if advertising dollars is the right proxy, maybe it isn’t) through one company. I want more town squares with more speech.
With all that said, you probably should ignore everything I’ve written above. I am a social recluse without a Facebook/Whatsapp/Instagram/TicToc etc account.
You think this was me being snide? C’mon, man.
The same Senator Whitehouse who helped get Jack McConnell, one of his (and the DNC’s) big time donors a judgeship? Hard pass on his opinions regarding money in politics.
For all its manifest flaws, Facebook has done one huge and important thing for modern society: they facilitated the complete destruction of American legacy media. Without Facebook’s enormous platform–and Twitter’s rapid, real time dissemination of information–legacy media would have spent another decade or so limping along while its members, oblivious to their effect on the host, tried desperately to kill it from the inside. At least the era of social media has helped burn to the ground the most dangerous and pernicious force that touches our everyday lives. The reason everyone in media is going hard at Facebook isn’t because they care about what effect it has on an election, it’s because they know that it’s the thing that will make them unemployed eventually. In a war between FB and legacy media all you can do is root for casualties.
As I wrote in the note, I think that private organizations can ban whatever words they want to ban within their organization. There are limits to that (IMO) if they get unique support from government or if there is no alternative to that private organization for their members.
I had a long section on anonymity as one of my (many) problems with Citizen’s United, but ended up cutting it, as it wasn’t directly applicable to FB. I mean … it kinda is, but got too convoluted for this note.
Good thoughts, Nicholas! I have a few, too:
This, but unironically (I think I’d like that more than you or Ben).
That’s a concise description of the problem, but the delenda est solution seems unlikely with the interests of the constructed entities (‘conveniences, not citizens’ was brilliant) and the institutions capable of effecting change so closely aligned.
I have always despised Facebook, primarily because this site is a drain on productivity. In fact I think there is something amiss when two of the largest companies in the world derive most if not all of their income from advertising. How much advertising do we really need on the internet if there were honest search engines? I a big advocate of creating social change by taxation, however I would be in favor of putting a cap on advertising expenditures as a ration to capital expenditures. Maybe in this manner we would see some tangible investments by the business community.
Well written Ben, I’ve been saying much the same to my friends for years. As always, you’ve taken a complex idea and provided clarity, and a catchy motto to boot. Facebook delanta est.
I recall that was achieved in the case of Carthage by toppling every stone of the city, and salting the surrounding farmland to ensure no one would return. Perhaps we could employ the modern equivalent: orbital bombarding Hacker Way with tactical nukes (or maybe full Exterminatus)
Less excitably, but more seriously, I - like several others here in the comments - would dissent from your conclusion that opting out is not meaningful. I am one of many that avoid Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or most anything with a newsfeed style UI. Also Google. You can recreate most of the benefits of those platforms with email, texting, group messages, video calls, etc. Most of the benefits. It’s definitely not perfect. But I think there are enough acceptable alternatives for at least a sizable minority of Facebook users to transfer their activity off of the platform.
Will it kill Facebook? Probably not. But 10% of users leaving the platform, 20% cutting their usage by half, and 50% of users scaling back their usage by 10% (so, roughly 25% total reduction in time spent on the platform), would seriously derail their business model. Maybe not permanently, but materially. That, combines with (in my view, entirely justified) anti-trust suites, would go a long way to opening up the space needed for more robust competition.
Yes to top-down anti trust suites, AND yes to bottom up opting out.
Citizens United did not protect the speech of corporations or groups because corporations or groups are legal citizens. Instead, the decision protects ALL speakers, arguing that “restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content.”
I have a feeling you’re going to get your wish in 2024…
I take your point regarding legacy media. But come on dude, Facebook and Twitter engage in rapid, real-time dissemination of misinformation far more than than providing any true value. Unless you value a really handy echo chamber construct.
I think the media channels aren’t the real problem. We are the problem, but we’re mostly OK with it.
At the flatland level, the Mill and Cato references had me from the first pitch. You always do that!
One level deeper (and man, there are how many levels to this?) I see the major impediments to the ‘solving’ problem grouping into 3 categories:
The whole idea that a meaningful amount of voters and citizens can hold two ideas with multifarious components simultaneously seems elusive. Not just ‘now’, but especially now. Maybe I take too much of a Dan Carlin approach to human nature and historical analogues…
The focus on FB is hyper-relevant. And of course you described the ‘job’ of Zuck perfectly. But ‘value unlock concepts’ framed in the way that Scott Galloway and an activist TWTR (monetize the TAM, bro) HF do jams cross-spectrum elements together in the same Snowpiercer 1st/2nd class car that has no exits. How does one stop a train when unlikely (and powerful) bedfellows need perpetual motion? Where’s our Cato?
The path that academia has taken shows that there are only short windows for platform jumping within an ecosystem. Yes, this sounds like (2). And I applaud the what alternative forums are doing (ET, Thinkspot, EW etc.). And I truly believe some of these platforms (like ET) won’t get caught on the platform window treadmill that hammered academia and the institutions that have failed us. But what’s the delta of escape velocity here? What if no one was there to listen to Delende Est?
Re-reading what I wrote, it all comes off as pretty pessimistic. Stream of consciousness I suppose. Apologies.
On the other hand, if I’m the last one standing (personally optimistic?) to listen to Cato’s speech outro I’d see that as a win. That’s a potentially dark, but I think honourable personal goal.
Great note, Ben.
Lots of (mostly) smart comments and critiques here (one of the best comments sections on the internet, for now…), so I’ll confine myself to something simple: you can view these social media giants as monopolies that control what was once the public square (more or less, a simplification but hear me out) or as companies that rely on addiction as much as anything else to maintain their revenues.
So, in my mind (and perhaps nowhere else), Facebook is like the British East India Company, making sure the mutually beneficial relationship between them and the great power(s) remain intact while harming their customer base for profit.
This tortured analogy leads me to the idea of how society deals with addictions. We deal with them most effectively, I think, through principles of “harm reduction.” Addictions are largely intractable problems so you seek to reduce the negative impacts they have on society at large, even if it means a type of moral compromise for condoning “bad” behavior.
So the problem with Facebook which you have, if I’m reading right, is one of unfair power being conferred to them in a mutually beneficial relationship with state-power which suppresses opposition to the regime in power.
The more pressing problem I see with Facebook, and the others, is misinformation and political atomization. I understand that these are related problems, but I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that Facebook should absolutely be ruthless and err on the side of zealotry in removing and marking obvious falsities. This probably makes me a hypocrite, and obviously brings up a host of other problems, but, I think there is a real argument for harm reduction.
As an example, without Reddit, there is no chance that the patently absurd QAnon movement would have grown to the size it has. They banned the subreddits, but too late.
My argument here flies in the face of the entire tradition, since Milton, of allowing free speech, no matter how stupid, to flourish. But the harm of allowing the spread of such stupidity is palpable, and the “losses” are socialized.
I don’t know what else to say really.
“You can be unethical and still be legal – that’s the way I live my life” – Mark Zuckerberg [From Ben Mezrich’s book]
Ben, Great Post. Appreciate the clarity with which the rights of the individual, as opposed to legal constructs such as corporations , are described.
Stopped using facebook years ago [ironically, it was because i was based in Shanghai from 2012-2015 & access was difficult]
Still use Whatsapp …bah…am gonna switch to Telegram
Great points Nicolas & Rusty! Thank you both for taking the time to elaborate on your positions. I agree with Ben & Rusty that FB/WA/IG is ubiquitous on an unprecedented level. I also think FB/WA/IG has shown an ability to buy/copy/innovate at a level that makes it unlikely that it will simply age out.
However, Nicolas’ point that saying our individual decisions don’t matter is very “un-ET”. Taleb has done some interesting writing on how small intransigent groups can end up forcing changes on flexible majorities. https://medium.com/incerto/the-most-intolerant-wins-the-dictatorship-of-the-small-minority-3f1f83ce4e15#.z5ry4bucq This is why virtually every restaurant now offers vegan and gluten free options, despite both of these groups being obnoxiously small minorities.
Ben’s refrain is BITFD, and I’m always left scratching my head about how I can do anything to stop the “Grifters”. Well FB/WA/IG and any other service that they develop or acquire is one place where the lever we can pull is obvious and easy. If the ET pack is intransigent enough and valued enough by the rest of society we can have a larger impact than the simple math would suggest.
C.U. marked the end of the ‘individuals’ phase of the USA. Now we have a zombie country with crapitalism, ever-larger co-dependent institutions, and the nukes.
Perhaps better off using the other Latin phrase mentioned in a previous note: Et in Arcadia Ego. No matter what kind of government or society you have you can never escape the problems which people have. Tolerating misinformation and hateful speech, I guess, is the price of an open society.
I have been following Facebook for quite a while and testified as an expert in their IPO litigation. I opted out of Facebook some years ago as a result of my read on managements’ character.
Here is my concrete suggestion - end their advertising model and make them a public utility - that changes all of their incentives. See my attached letter to our Ct senators:
The Honorable Chris Murphy
136 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510
Dear Senator Murphy,
I, like many citizens, am concerned with the role of Facebook and other social media and their misuse for propaganda and surveillance.
I believe that the root of the problem is their advertising driven business model. Our citizens’ data (their face, location, likes, friends, health status, political sympathies, romantic connections, etc.) is for sale to any and all, for good or evil purposes. No amount of effort on their part or regulations by Congress will solve these problems unless there is a fundamental change in the way their businesses operate.
That having been said, the vast majority of people enjoy the benefits of social media, which allow them to keep up with and reach out to friends and family, who in today’s world are often geographically scattered.
However, there is a solution. We the people can make public utilities of the major social media companies, as well as Google. Prohibit their sale of data and advertising and set regulated fees that they can charge users. This would allow our citizens to enjoy the benefits of social media, without the hidden costs to our society. Rates could be set between $1.15 to $9.00 per month, which is equal to the current revenue that Facebook receives in advertising revenue per user(depending on geography), or lower if Congress and its regulatory agencies see their current level of profitability as excessive. (See attached analysis)
This solution is entirely legal considering the logic of the Supreme Court in the seminal 1871 Munn v. Illinois case, which ruled:
Property does become clothed with a public interest when used in a manner to make it of public consequence and affect the community at large. When, therefore, one devotes a property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of that interest.
For the sake of the common welfare of our citizens and the health of our body politic, I implore you to give this matter serious consideration. As JFK said (purportedly quoting Edmund Burke) - The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing.
Your Concerned Constituent,
The Honorable Richard Blumenthal
The Honorable Joe Courtney
The Honorable Ron Johnson, Chairman, Homeland Security
The Honorable John Thune, Chairman, Commerce, Science & Transportation
The Honorable Michael McCaul, Chairman House Homeland Security Committee
The Honorable John Ratcliffe, Chairman House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity
Facebook revenue per user:
 Based on annualized numbers from the fourth quarter of 2017 provided by Facebook - https://s21.q4cdn.com/399680738/files/doc_financials/2017/Q4/Q4-2017-Earnings-Presentation.pdf
 Includes $12,779 of advertising revenue and $193 of payments and other fees
I think the best way to fight any Empire is with networks designed using Rhizome theory in mind. Think about wire grass. Each root has the potential to spawn an entirely new plant. Each plant is part of a decentralized network. Each plant is hell-bent on reproducing. Each plant is independently capable of reproducing new decentralized networks on their own. If you pull any, or every plant up you create dozens more plants because you’ll inevitably leave a few roots in the ground. Each root is capable of spawning a whole new plant, each of which will work tirelessly to spawn an entirely new decentralized network hell-bent on reproducing. Certain types of cancer act this way, Glioblastomas in particular. The major trait all rhizome networks share is one of persistent determined growth. I think that is a fantastic model designed specifically to confront and overwhelm centralized networks.
It’s a good point about a seemingly small fall in FB users potentially having a big impact. I believe they are an pretty low margin business, thus it might not take a huge fall off in advertising volume for FB to feel a pinch. And - if typical power laws apply - it could be that a small fraction of the FB user base drives a lot of the revenue for advertisers. Thus, a defection in those users could potentially create an outsized economic impact on FB. This is just speculation on my part…
It hardly matters whether or not the information is true, all that matters is where the engagement is heading to. And it’s not going to CNN/MSNBC/NYT/WAPO. People are realizing that if they’re going to be lied to then they might as well get their lies from somewhere that shares their views. Twitter May well be the greatest thing to happen to journalism in the history of the profession. All of the sudden the opinions you used to only get to share at parties and gatherings could now be shared with the entire world, in real time. It was like handing a bunch of 12 year old boys a flamethrower and OxyContin-laced gummy bears. The journalism profession proceeded to light itself on fire and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. ProPublica grows because everyone wants real news. Substack grows enormously because independent voices no longer have to bow to the gatekeepers who once kept everyone but their friends out of the clubhouse. Facebook and Twitter lead to this and it’s been their greatest contribution to society. Does it make up for the damage they’ve done? Maybe. But as you noted, most of that damage was done by us anyway.
actually its the other way around in the case of facebook,
the large advertisers [the ones who publicly announced boycotts] make up a tiny fraction of their revenues.
the vast majority appears to be
all those digital nomads, and people pounding away at their laptops in cafes…a fair percentage make a living doing Social media services for these small companies…
There is a chart I read here :
breaks it down by category
This are quotes from a summary I read on London review of books by John Lancaster a couple of years ago :
[I believe the book was “the Attention merchants” by Tim Wu]
There was a particular reason Facebook caught Thiel’s eye, rooted in a byway of intellectual history. In the course of his studies at Stanford – he majored in philosophy – Thiel became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’.
The reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ Thiel said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.’ We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.
Absolutely! I think it’s easy to underestimate the impact we have on the world with the products we use and the platforms we endorse. I expect many in the pack are people who are looked up to by their peers. There are a few groups that, while small, tend to lead societal changes. ET is definitely one of them.
I agree. I think that we should have a extremely high threshold for “there ought to be a law/regulation”, and we should exhaust simpler grassroots options before. Grassroots boycotts are underappreciated right now. It’s tempting to try for the moonshot, but I think that Government Supremacists overestimate the effectiveness of government policy. As you and Ben have pointed out many times, the broad societal changes we need to realize have to be bottom-up in order to succeed.
Honestly, Facebook isn’t even the censorship engine that concerns me the most. Facebook’s value is the future posts its members will make, and the content being continuously generated. We’re a few minds away from rendering Facebook irrelevant. No, the censorship that concerns me is of Youtube. Youtube is a fantastic storehouse of praxis, the best that the world has ever collected. Censorship of Youtube is a direct war on effective DIY action in a way that no social network or search engine censorship can match.
“The crowd is untruth. A crowd–not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, of rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept–is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision. . . For a crowd is an abstraction, which does not have hands; each single individual, on the other hand, normally has two hands, and when he, as a single individual, lays his two hands on Caius Marius, then it is the two hands of this single individual, not after all his neighbor’s, even less–the crowd’s which has no hands. . . . the untruth is that the crowd had the “courage” for it, since never at any time was even the most cowardly of all single individuals so cowardly, as the crowd always is. For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual, contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd.” Soren Kierkegaard, 1846.
Wife and I deleted FB in 2014. Never looked back. It CAN be done. The only people who would sweat if FB disappeared are the ad execs (only for a quarter or two until they found other venues). The rest of the global population would proceed normally, precisely because (as you point out) it’s only an ad-delivery platform after all, and nothing more!
My good friends who work there - high up - acknowledge privately it has become a net negative to society. But, who is going to staunch a well gushing Billions? Not our government, certainly.
That is precisely why WE, the “users,” must decide to leave the platform. Only then will the change you seek manifest itself. Be the change you seek (barf-y cliche, but true in this case).
I left my FB accout in spring 2015 and have never looked back. I’m not on any other social media, either.
I thought about FB every day in the first few weeks after quitting. In my moments of downtime (toilet especially) I missed not having that window of connectedness to everyone I knew and everyone barely knew.
But after a few weeks the whole idea of it faded away into meaninglessness. The peace of mind that replaced it felt much more valuable.
I noticed a steady shift in my mental state while I was on social media. I began to care more and more about my profile…how many likes I got…how many “friends” I had…how my “friends” were living. When I read “Sheep Logic” in 2017 (2 years later), I realized that during my time on social media I had experienced a steady shift towards “other regarding” emotions. That’s reason enough for me to agree: Facebook delenda est.
While reading this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the quote (I think attributed to national treasure Jaron Lanier but I’m not 100% sure), paraphrased: “If the product is free, you are the product being sold.”
Thanks Ben, for another thought-provoking discussion.
Fair enough. We can disagree as to whether restrictions based on identity are hidden restrictions based on content.
Just really wanted to clarify that the basis of the majority’s argument is that ALL speakers must be treated equally. The majority’s argument is not based on the notion that corporations are legal persons.
W-haat? A large concentration of power with minimal transparency is being abused?!
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