WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE SOCIAL NETWORK WE BUILT?

The Washington Socialist – May 2018

By Woody Woodruff

Size matters. Nobody knows that better than socialists, because size is a metric and metaphor for accumulation; few things in our environment start out gigantic. Capital or its less-evil twin state power are both accumulated, a downstream process that almost by nature requires human-centered intervention and in various contexts resists that intervention. When the two intersect in the sphere of social power, human intervention is both more possible (social power is conferred by us) and more difficult, confusing and contested (social power is scaled up and manipulated by accumulated capital and accumulated state power).

Well. That brings us to Facebook. It has 2.2 billion users and appears to be surfing through a seriously scandalous rough patch while showing continued gigantic increases in revenue and profits. It employed more than 25,000 souls last year and appears to be ramping up to provide human eyeballs for removing bad content of various sorts quickly. It makes, by one count, four times as much per employee as its rival Google (Alphabet) and something like twenty dollars a year per user.

And it’s free.

But how different is Facebook, really? The entire Internet/World Wide Web enterprise, on which Facebook and other corporate giants like Alphabet/Google are grounded, was mistakenly seen as an entirely new form of human communication, a radical disjunction from the historical sequence of speech to manuscript to print/telegraph to radio, telephone and TV. It was the first truly interactive, two-way mass communication device.

James Curran, a veteran left historian of communication, says in his collection “Misunderstanding The Internet” that the grand hopes for the internet’s positive effects on society — better journalism and information, more widely distributed; a democratizing of the economy and of societies; promotion of global understanding across borders — didn’t happen. All those “predictions were wrong because they inferred the impact of the internet from its technology and failed to grasp that the internet’s influence is filtered through the structures and processes of society. . . . The internet is not constituted solely by its technology, but by the way it is funded and organized, by the way it is designed, imagined and used, and by the way it is regulated and controlled” (179).

That is to say, it is the next thing technologically but still enmeshed in capitalist practices.

“The internet market, on closer scrutiny, turns out to have many of the problems associated with unregulated capitalism,” Curran says directly (180). Social media were touted as a maximally interactive way to bypass corporate control of the internet, but “pleasurable means of self-expression and social connection” mask the fact that “social media are more often about individual than collective emancipation, about presenting self . . . rather than changing society.” Social media, like the internet as a whole, are “shaped by the wider [capitalist] environment in which they are situated rather than functioning as an autonomous force transforming society.”

How did the commercial sector (capitalism, i.e.) get its fingers into the World Wide Web? Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian observes “Our [taxpayer] money created the internet, before it was radically privatized in the 1990s. Big companies seized a system built at enormous public expense in order to sell us access to it — the equivalent of someone stealing your house to charge you rent.”

The germ of these problems could be seen back in the early 1990s when, as an example, the statewide library system in Maryland offered free internet access and email accounts to anyone who held a library card from one of the county systems. The early tier of for-pay ISPs intervened forcefully with Maryland officials. The statewide library system, almost apologizing for its heresy, rescinded this free public access to the internet within about a year, explicitly because it was interfering with the growth of for-profit ISPs, and those who had enjoyed the previously free accounts were directed to sign up with some entity that charged for its services.

The genuine webtopianism of a Tim Berners-Lee was morphed into some fairly anodyne slogans about connecting the world in the cause of peace to mask the actual, eventual marching orders for Facebook: “Move Fast and Break Things.” Maximum connectivity does not necessarily equate to maximum understanding.

The authors of a study by the Hewlett Foundation said they (the authors) “deliberately decided not to link social media use to quality of democracy; social media is neither inherently democratic or undemocratic, they write, ‘but simply an arena in which political actors — some which may be democratic and some which may be anti-democratic — can contest for power and influence.’”

The New York Times’s Eduardo Porter quotes Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues in a recent paper: The question is “to what extent the combination of sophisticated analytics and massive amounts of consumer data will lead to an increase in aggregate welfare, and to what extent will it lead to mere changes in the allocation of wealth?”

And remember, in fairness, Zuckerberg warned his Congressional grand inquisitors that if new regulations were imposed, they had to be carefully designed so as not to further advantage the mega-companies — like his, like Google/Alphabet — that were more durable and had more resources.

He was the poster child for Corporate Miscreant of the Moment, but it is important that the CEOs and moguls of the biggest tech-corporate behemoths be in the spotlight that way because it identifies them as corporate capitalists, rather than as the cozy blue-framed portal, the little blue birdie, the funny-colored letters spelling “Google.”

And they are, all, free. Sort of.

How? Zuckerberg gently told an apparently more than usually clueless Orrin Hatch: “Well, we sell advertising, Senator.”

And that puts them firmly in a long cascade of media products that financed their existence indirectly — nothing new there. Targeting ads within genre categories is nothing new, either. A Macy’s executive is supposed to have said of his newspaper advertising that he knew half of his ad money was wasted — he just didn’t know which half. And in the spectrum of readership demographics, another department store exec is reported to have told Rupert Murdoch (when he was helming the New York Post and seeking more advertising) “but Rupert, your readers are our shoplifters.” ZIP codes have been retail destiny, more and more, as US consumers have class-stratified themselves geographically.

Gathering personal data systematically for building group and individual portraits goes back at least as far as 1917, as Colin Koopman related. “That year, in the midst of America’s fevered entry into war, Robert Sessions Woodworth of Columbia University created the Personal Data Sheet, a questionnaire that promised to assess the personalities of Army recruits.” So using machine learning to build full portraits of individuals who are users of social media and search engines is a quantitative but not qualitative step further. And despite the soporific pablum of “Don’t be evil” and similar slogans, capitalist advantage is at the heart of the action as accumulation of both capital and data makes size matter and vice versa.

Tom Walker in the UK left newsletter Red Pepper says, “Every company can use what it learns from millions or even billions of people not just to target ads but to make decisions that will let it grow faster than the competition — so over time, the most data-driven firms come to dominate.”  . . . “These data-mongers [e.g., Cambridge Analytica] are no geniuses: they stumbled across Facebook’s data goldmine and filled their boots. The point is that such a motherlode should never have existed in the first place.” Walker concedes that accumulation also brought some leveling in the increasingly stratified media world.  . . . “At its best, social media has provided an important platform for alternatives to the mainstream media, allowing people to spread the word about protests and grassroots events, giving a voice to people previously marginalised and ignored. This is surely one of the factors behind the emergence of Corbynism [referring to Jeremy Corbyn, the left-winger who rose to become leader of the UK Labor Party]. The question is: how can we decommodify our everyday interactions – and even our resistance?

“This week’s spotlight on Facebook,” Walker concluded, “will soon fade, but every data scandal — and there will be many more to come — increases the relevance and urgency of technological alternatives that let us take back our online lives from the corporations’ clutches.”

Tim Wu, the Columbia University law professor who has published solid analytical histories of big-tech corporate media from the telegraph to cable TV (“The Master Switch”) and corporate-fueled advertising from Bernays through Buzzfeed (“The Attention Merchants”) argues, “What the journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1959 of ‘free’ TV is also true of ‘free’ social media: It is ultimately ‘the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.’ But social media itself isn’t going away. It has worked its way into our lives and has come to help satisfy the basic human need to connect and catch up.”

Likewise, Wu, in “The Attention Merchants,” outlined the initial resistance to an ad-based business model on the part of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the Google founders. He recalls the now-obscure, brash and unswerving Ted Gross and his pre-Google search engine GoTo.com, which unblushingly sold the highest position in the search hierarchy to those who paid the most for it. Brin and Page, outspokenly denouncing this approach, were seduced instead by the idea of a value-added business model in which Google used what it knew about users to present them with only the ads they wanted to see (and, presumably, respond to by buying the product or service). This model — know your consumer, maybe better than she does herself — won the contest but the consumers, ultimately, lost.

Who’s Really in Charge?

But don’t we have agency ourselves, as users of these free services? After all, it is not Zuckerberg who types our status into our timelines or uploads the photos we took; it is not Brin or Page who decides what we will search for. There’s clearly interaction between ourselves and the platform, as well as between ourselves and our Facebook Friends.

For us as users, Facebook and other social media are, first and foremost, a collection of constraints and affordances — factors that make it easier to achieve what we think are our goals, as well as factors that make it harder and advantage the platform and the advertisers. Researcher Axel Bruns called our manipulation of this pro-con environment in online media “produsage,” indicating we are both users of content and producers of content. Facebook has won, and won so many users, because of the textural depth (measured in Friend network connections) of its produser function and because the company has made it so easy to keep us near-addicted without more than a vague recognition that the company recovers and stores the results, for its profit. Nevertheless the notion that we are “produsers,” which Facebook and other corporate attention merchants encourage, gives us the sense of participation and autonomy even in the web of obviously external forces that make up the comforting blue frame of the social network. And it is not entirely an illusion. Facebook depends, desperately, on assent and agency on the part of we the users — because only we possess knowledge of the total data set that makes up our selves. And without access to that, Facebook is just email with imagery.

Academic analysts of Facebook like danah boyd (an early recognizer of the future behemoth) led probably thousands of other communication scholars now working in that vineyard. From her early, positive perspective on the effects of Facebook for millennial and younger users, boyd has transitioned to a more skeptical view of the company’s gathering and manipulation of personal data, driven by its increasing dependence on targeting advertising guided by increasingly textured understanding of our nonrational weaknesses. As machine learning digs into our everyday responses, the veneer of cheery positivity erodes quickly.

Last October, boyd wrote that in Google searches, “Unsurprisingly, only black names [like that of Latanya Sweeney, professor of government and technology at Harvard] produced ads for criminal justice products. This isn’t because Google knowingly treated the names differently, but because searchers were more likely to click on criminal justice ads when searching for black names. Google learned American racism and amplified it back at all of its users.” The “training sets” that teach AI systems used in social media are based on everyday US responses to stimuli, the universe of “implicit bias”; those sets are also used by the algorithms at Cambridge Analytica to segment their trove of Facebook user information by degrees and sorts of vulnerability. As boyd said, all the way back last October, “there’s also a new challenge emerging. The same decentralized networks of people  —  and state actors  —  who have been messing with social media and search engines are increasingly eyeing the data that various companies use to train and improve their systems.”

Noah Kulwin, writing in New York magazine, relates that, “As Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, points out, anger [the flipside of fear] is the emotion most effective at driving ‘engagement’ — which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one. By creating a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination, social media further polarized what had already seemed, during the Obama years, an impossibly and irredeemably polarized country.” And that, of course, was before Trump and Cambridge Analytica.

So there is a lot of evidence that the deck is stacked against sober, evidence-based analysis and in favor of fear-generating trolling. The key to Facebook’s success with ads is not sweet reason but emotional stimuli that can be associated with products and, with more difficulty, ideas and stances. The easiest path to ideas and stances, demonstrably, is not positive associations but the negative associations of fear, appeals to the amygdala to override the reasoning brain.

Is Facebook divisive? Not by its nature; but remember that Facebook started out trading on elitism, permitting only college students with college email addresses in order to separate its brand from MySpace, which was more democratic, even demotic — and also more easily tagged as the hangout for ne’er-do-wells. Cops used to monitor MySpace to help track down people bragging about what they had stolen while breaking into houses.

The big scale-up of social media, probably beyond the capacity of most users or produsers to easily accommodate it to their mental maps of social behavior, has applied what we DSAers recognize most easily as a profound financial-capitalist tether entangling the freedom of the individual companies to follow through on their happy-talk slogans of not being evil.

One result has been a profound disruption of what has in the past arguably been a common knowledge base. Rachel Botsman quoted former president Barack Obama (interviewed by David Letterman) to the effect that “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. What the Russians exploited — but it was already here — is we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”

Obama’s observation is not so startling to anyone, in DSA or not, who’s paid attention at all to the levers of polarization. But Botsman went on to report that “According to the Edelman report published on 22 January 2018, 63% of the 33,000 respondents said they no longer knew how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods.” That is more troubling and represents not just the two fact-worlds Obama identified but a decline in public knowledge per se. To know news when you see it, you already have to know stuff.

Like the two political parties locked in a WWE sham battle that masks a joint interest in boosting revenue, Facebook and other social media are hoping to weather their temporary setbacks and loss of trust and see customer appreciation of their menu of constraints and affordances be renewed. Several recently published op-ed pieces in the New York Times examine this rise/fall/rise again scenario and one, at least, suggests that Facebook is contestable terrain that is worth fighting for, not abandoning.

“Quitting Facebook lets Google and Twitter off the hook,” writes Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia professor. “It lets AT&T and Comcast and its peers off the hook. The dangers of extremist propaganda and hate speech are just as grave on YouTube, which is owned by Google. Russian agents undermining trust in institutions and democracy are even more visible on Twitter. And every major telecommunications firm, as well as Google and Twitter, relies on surveillance systems similar to the one Facebook uses to run targeted advertising. Facebook is bigger and better at all of this than the others, but its problems are not unique.”

Colin Koopman, in an essay on the same New York Times Sunday Review page, lamented that “It is not Mr. Zuckerberg’s fault that our society has given him a free pass (and a net worth of $67 billion) for inventing his platform first and asking only later what its social consequences might be.” He argues that “An adequate ethics of data for today would include not only regulatory policy and statutory law governing matters like personal data privacy and implicit bias in algorithms. It would also establish cultural expectations, fortified by extensive education in high schools and colleges, requiring us to think about data technologies as we build them, not after they have already profiled, categorized and otherwise informationalized millions of people.”

Such a framework could guide some of the stringent regulatory efforts that Vaidhyanathan proposes in his piece, fueled mostly by antitrust action based on Facebook’s commanding the attention of 68 percent of US adults. For instance, he compares the result of forced divestment of Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp to the positives of the 1982 breakup of the regulated phone monopoly, which “unleashed creativity, improved phone service and lowered prices. It also limited the political power of AT&T.”

But a much higher level of media literacy — a counter to the warring fact-worlds identified by Barack Obama — would have to be coupled with the regulatory effort. It is pretty important to reduce the number of people who report to pollsters that they don’t know how to tell news from its fake alternative. And as Vaidhyanathan points out accurately, “If we act together as citizens to champion these changes, we have a chance to curb the problems that Facebook has amplified. If we act as disconnected, indignant moral agents, we surrender the only power we have: the power to think and act collectively.”

So the path of blowing up Facebook, or switching to a Mastodon-like social media alternative, somewhat resembles the path of blowing up the Democratic Party or going third-party as opposed to forcibly refashioning it to a version less suffused with Wall Street. Both have their perils. Are the essential frameworks, durable to a fault, also strong enough to usefully sustain that kind of change? The comparison may aid in navigating both.

One argument is that Facebook can’t be wrenched to the status of public good while it is still enmeshed in the international corporate internet complex. Ben Tarnoff argues instead that “We need a socialist agenda for the internet for the same reason that we need a socialist agenda for healthcare and higher education: because it’s the best way to give people the resources they need to lead dignified lives, and the power to participate in the decisions that most affect them.” Curran, in “Misunderstanding the Internet,” in fact uses the calls for radical re-regulation of the world financial industry following the 2008 meltdown as an analog model for reshaping the internet. Jaron Lanier both expresses and embodies the contradictions in the tech industry’s soft dominance.

And Tim Wu argues against reclassifying Facebook as a media company on the model of a utility. “If today’s privacy scandals lead us merely to install Facebook as a regulated monopolist, insulated from competition, we will have failed completely. The world does not need an established church of social media.”

However . . .

Here is a highly interesting point — the most “radical” proposals for Facebook are not interventionist and regulatory but commodification! — the proposal that Facebook become a subscription service. All kinds of inequalities, of course, could emerge from that as the company tries to transition, maybe first by putting some premium user services behind a paywall while the rest of the 2.2 billion endure a much more stripped-down “free” version. What would a premium Facebook cost, though? Maybe more than you want to pay, if the company is to continue to reap profits and grow at its current level. “In 2017, Facebook’s average advertising revenue per user was $20.21 [US]. The social network’s advertising revenue in 2017 was 39.9 billion U.S. dollars” according to Statista.

How about nationalization (internationalization?) instead? Zuckerberg could perhaps turn the whole company over to the UN to administer with a big chunk of money from his foundation. Or the company could continue but as a nonprofit providing the platform ad-free to the UN agency at a negotiated cost, with the UN billing the individual member nations for the provision of the public good (unless they rejected it) — probably augmented with a flotilla of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the worldwide wi-fi that Zuckerberg has been blue-skying for years.

 As Jaron Lanier put it, perhaps not too rigorously: “We wanted everything to be free, because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs, because we loved Steve Jobs. So you want to be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, which is absurd.”

Tim Wu’s proposal, instead, is almost laissez-faire in its description of the McLuhanesque course that the tech industry is likely to follow. It tracks with the history of big tech in his “The Master Switch,” in which every monopoly indulged in overreach and lost because of it. “What comes after Facebook? Yes, we have come to depend on social networks, but instead of accepting an inherently flawed Facebook monopoly, what we most need now is a new generation of social media platforms that are fundamentally different in their incentives and dedication to protecting user data. Barring a total overhaul of leadership and business model, Facebook will never be that platform.”

As socialists are all too familiar with, the operative question is whether Facebook will get out of the way of the next new thing or exert its power to keep its dominance.

The Washington Socialist is the newsletter and editorial publication of Metro DC DSA. The views and opinions expressed here may not reflect those of the chapter, and publication of any information should not be considered an endorsement. For our chapter's official statements, please visit the Statements section of our main site.

Join the DC DSA Mailing List

Subscribe to MDC DSA's mailing lists for weekly event calendars, special announcements, and other relevant content. You can unsubscribe or modify your settings at any time.

Basic Information Fields marked with a are required.
Committees / Interests
Choose Your Subscriptions
Branch Affiliation Choose a branch to also get updates on local activities for your area.