MARCH 4, 2019
IN NOVEMBER, The New York Times published a story revealing that, in the fall of 2017, Facebook hired a DC-based public relations company to help rein in a narrative that seemed to be spiraling out of control. For keen observers of Facebook’s “two years of hell,” during which it was plagued by scandals ranging from Cambridge Analytica to the Russian involvement in the US election, the story was a revelation, pulling back the curtain on a number of weird details. I, for one, had been scratching my head at the bizarre inclusion of an empty, Google-marked chair at a Congressional hearing featuring Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. The Times journalists revealed that the PR firm had helped make that happen, along with all sorts of other gambits meant to divert public and regulatory scrutiny toward Google. This weirdness, once deciphered, made it patently clear that, as the University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in Slate after the NYT story broke, Facebook was a corporate actor, or as he colorfully put it, “just another normal sleazy American company.”
Comically obvious and long overdue, this observation, once acknowledged, has enormous implications. For the past decade, the tech giants were true unicorns — and not just in the venture capital sense of “once upon a time” being startups valued at more than a billion dollars. Their magic lay in their ability to become some of the most profitable corporations in history while floating above the greedy, exploitative, fundamentally capitalist muck clinging to most other mega-corporations. It worked, at least for a while. Many sharp, idealistic, left-leaning youth flocked to the Church of Tech, hoping to enact some small change in the world. Here, they could make money with a relatively clean conscience while also escaping the crappy lifestyle of the traditional desk job (in marked contrast to, say, Wall Street).
Part of the appeal was an image thing: “Imagine your freshman dorm running a business,” wrote one early Facebook employee. From the open offices to the casual dress code, the great “disruptors” seemed to represent a new way of doing business. “Work was fantastic. […] It didn’t feel like work. It felt like we were having fun all the time,” another commented. The virtue-signaling language didn’t hurt either: everything was packaged with an idyllic overarching social goal, be it creating community or “making the world more connected.” Tech made the world a better place — or at the very least, not a worse place — and even those who didn’t quite buy in completely could claim that Twitter and Facebook built value-free “platforms” — neutral tools that could be used in any number of ways.
But now, all that is rapidly changing. Regulation is coming, and the biggest unicorns have lost their sparkle. The dissenters who have long preached, often at cost to their professional careers, that people should be wary of internet companies are gaining traction, having been joined by scores of reformed techno-optimists. Even Silicon Valley employees are now meeting up to discuss the social and political impact their products can have. Tech criticism seems to have finally gone mainstream.
In his new book, Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Vaidhyanathan reflects on how his own relationship with technology has changed in the past three decades. Like many others, he was a techno-optimist in the ’90s and early aughts, during the heyday of the internet’s global expansion and the collaborative “Web 2.0.” Unlike most, however, he was quick to spy trouble with the platform economy that emerged once the “wealth of networks” morphed into what might be called the “wealth of a few platform founders, early investors, and other privileged white people,” powered by a monopolistic business logic that Shoshana Zuboff has notably termed “surveillance capitalism.”
After a formative stint at New York University, where he was mentored by the media theorist and tech skeptic Neil Postman, Vaidhyanathan began writing The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) in 2007. Published in 2011, the book attacked the corporate capture of culture through technology, urging readers to think twice about the nature of the “commons” being created by companies like Google. He argued that Google should be seen as “a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world,” and that the public should “should influence — even regulate — search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge.”
In many ways, that prescient book foreshadowed today’s debates about Facebook. From content moderation to political polarization, the most pressing contemporary issues around speech, culture, and politics have hinged on outsourcing the infrastructure for free expression to a handful of corporate actors. How should a company set the rules of the road for what billions of users can say and do, or decide how much political information those users should be exposed to? These are fundamentally political and inherently difficult questions, especially in an unstable and contentious democratic epoch.
With the Nazi march in Charlottesville, Britain’s tottering exit from the EU, and The Apprentice’s host now ensconced in the White House, it’s hardly surprising that so many recent (and forthcoming) books seek technological explanations for our current state of disarray. Typically, they focus in a broad-brush manner on the following culprits: disinformation and the emergence of a highly effective right-wing media ecosystem, the monopolistic features of the contemporary attention economy, or the global tech industry in general.
Vaidhyanathan, by contrast, homes in on Facebook in his causal story for much of what has recently gone awry in the world. In his telling, Zuckerberg’s company has sabotaged international politics (Facebook is “complicit in the rise of nationalists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and ISIS”). It has eroded public health (“Without Facebook, at least, we might have a better chance of convincing a few more parents to vaccinate their children”). And it has undercut mental health (Facebook’s products are designed to be habit-forming, addictive “anxiety machine[s]”). Most crucially, it has undermined democratic governance, “foster[ing] the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world.”
These are big claims, but Vaidhyanathan doesn’t stop there. Facebook’s wickedness is no accident: it is structural, ingrained within its business model and corporate culture. This means that Facebook cannot be easily fixed, and incremental changes, such as those that have been rolled out in the past two years (e.g., improved transparency around political advertising and content moderation), are futile gestures. As Vaidhyanathan argues, “the problem with Facebook is Facebook”; the company’s products are “too big, too powerful, and too intrusive — and [work] too well — for shallow reform to make a difference.”
It’s an unremittingly bleak picture. But it seems that part of that portrayal is rhetorical. In a revealing passage, Vaidhyanathan quips that his role as a critical scholar of technology is like that of a clergyman who does not truly expect his preaching and teaching to fundamentally change the behavior of others. Instead, he hopes to plant seeds of guilt through a powerful message, prompting readers to think more deeply and critically about Facebook and their sinful relationship to it. Readers can easily grok his readable, punchy prose. They get it: Facebook is bad. But this simplicity also comes with important tradeoffs — it’s not so appealing to those readers who prefer nuance over rhetorical force, and it alienates academic audiences and others suspicious of monocausal explanations.
Vaidhyanathan’s approach has two main problems. The first is that Antisocial Media presents an overly narrow account of today’s platform economy, one that reduces the potential harms of contemporary digital technologies to a single actor. The book would be better if it paid more attention to the role of exogenous factors in Facebook’s rise to market dominance — perhaps by accounting for a laissez-faire regulatory environment arguably designed to help US tech companies grow globally and advance American foreign policy interests. From the post-9/11 securitization of communication technologies, to the “Internet Freedom Agenda” that was a cornerstone of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, the US government has long encouraged and enabled companies like Google and Facebook. Indeed, as Nicholas Carr recently wrote in the LARB, the Federal Trade Commission seemed poised to regulate tech in the lead up to the World Trade Center attack, until the national security interest became vested in a few providers having centralized control over data.
Why did policymakers around the world fail to do their job, which is to meaningfully structure incentives toward desirable outcomes in key industries? Why did we, the consumers, not demand change earlier? Why did we so blithely and cheaply trade away our privacy? Vaidhyanathan’s Zuckerberg is no evil genius plotting mischief, but rather a “profoundly uneducated” and bumbling naïf. It’s therefore curious that the book manages to downplay not only individual agency (outside of Zuckerberg and his coterie) but also the influence of systemic factors, such as capitalism, and the market imperatives that drove Facebook’s behavior as a corporate actor. What led so many bright people in tech to sacrifice their idealism for profit, and reconsider their dislike of intrusive, yet highly profitable, advertising-based business models that have created so many structural issues in our online ecosystem?
The second, related issue, is that Vaidhyanathan tends to be one-sided in how he presents evidence to support his argument. Readers are given the impression that the case against Facebook is closed, when in fact major debates around digital media and democracy are nowhere near settled. Virtually all the topics he discusses have been contested by scholars even while being presented as truisms in the media. This includes topics like online polarization and “filter bubbles,” disinformation and “fake news,” and the mental health impact of social media “addiction.” Did Russian interference really have a significant effect on the 2016 election, and, if so, how do we measure those effects? Do meaningful “filter bubbles” exist when observed in the broader context of people’s offline and online lives? These issues are complex and difficult to study, and it is a shame that the book did not engage with the many dissenting scholarly voices who warn against uncritically succumbing to the hype around “filter bubbles,” tech “addiction,” and so on.
Tech criticism may have never had a wider audience or broader appeal. However, it also has never been more difficult to do well. As platforms have gained users at dizzying speed (Facebook has more than 2.2 billion!), embedding themselves in their daily lives all around the world, their impact has become increasingly difficult to disaggregate from other political and social trends. There’s a mass of scholarly research, but with enormous variation in quality. Writers seeking to accurately deploy evidence-driven arguments need to develop a high degree of methodological literacy. Facebook is just one company, but evaluating it holistically and globally, as Antisocial Media aims to do, requires judiciously deploying scholarly tools that represent a polymathic fusion of virtually all the social sciences and a few of the natural sciences as well. One would need the expertise to assess studies conducted in psychology (social media and mental health), cognitive science (addiction, persuasion), political science (elections, democratic theory), communication (“filter bubbles” and polarization, news and political information), law (regulation and legal frameworks), computational social science (statistical analysis and big data methods), and computer science (technical architectures, algorithms), to name just a few disciplines.
It’s an admittedly high bar, but the fact is that the arguments made in books like Antisocial Media matter more than ever. We are, after all, inhabiting a moment characterized by rising regulatory scrutiny and ballooning public outrage over the role of large, minimally accountable global corporations in social life. Complicating matters, elites are looking toward tech — indeed, they’re scapegoating tech — to explain away a host of undesirable political outcomes that they despise or cannot understand.
One of Vaidhyanathan’s important observations is that “Facebook, like the human beings who built it and use it, is political.” Crucially, so is the emerging discourse around the tech giants. It’s all too easy to present Facebook in a Manichean light, but as Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts note in their new book on the 2016 US election, some of the discourse around Facebook is dangerous insofar as it threatens to depoliticize the current situation by diverting blame toward a handful of private corporations. We should, in other words, be wary of tech-shaming insofar as it lulls us away from the difficult realities of messy societal divisions, deteriorating institutions, and other key drivers of today’s multifaceted democratic crises. As tech policy continues to grow in impact and scope, academics, journalists, and policymakers should strive for critical examination — not just of Facebook and its peers, but also of a mainstream media ecosystem where poorly supported, sensational stories can go viral by claiming that Facebook is the cause of anti-refugee sentiment or political unrest in Europe and beyond, and where the editorial stance of influential news organizations has swung toward an unequivocal techlash.
This is not to absolve Silicon Valley. Far from it! But diagnoses of what ails us need to be holistic and thoughtful. Consider, for example, the fawning and shockingly uncritical January 29, 2019 New York Times review of a new “insider” account of Facebook written by a self-proclaimed “mentor” of Mark Zuckerberg. The reviewer, Tom Bissell, takes every claim at face value and fails to mention that the author’s relationship with the Facebook founder has been disputed and is almost certainly exaggerated. Will one-sided polemics successfully pave the way toward a more just internet? I think not. To continue with Vaidhyanathan’s religious metaphor, there should be no easy indulgences that let us point the finger and wash away our sins.
Antisocial Media concludes with only a few policy recommendations, perhaps because Vaidhyanathan has succumbed to the fatalistic diagnosis of the preceding pages. He advocates for comprehensive privacy regulation and antitrust measures to break up Facebook from its acquisitions Instagram and WhatsApp, but writes that both are unlikely to happen soon in the United States. (He’s right about the federal level, but not necessarily about the state level — see the recent battle in California for new privacy legislation.) He doesn’t seem to believe that individuals can do much either, reiterating his previous position that boycotting Facebook would be futile due to network effects and the company’s global reach.
But following up on Vaidhyanathan’s observation that “Facebook is now just another normal sleazy American company” can take us in a potentially more optimistic direction. If Facebook is a corporation (although, to be sure, a type of corporation that poses novel policy and regulatory challenges), it can be governed much as other global corporations are. A rich literature and many historical examples can provide guidance. Consider Nestlé, for instance: it came under fire in the ’70s and ’80s for its marketing practices around infant formula in the Global South. It only began to change its behavior (which, in retrospect, was not even a core feature of its business model) after more than a decade of research, a seven-year global boycott, and the formation of one of the first “transnational advocacy networks” in international politics, leveraging the previously under-appreciated power of civil society to “name and shame” the company into better conduct.
Other examples outside of tech also suggest that the economic power of platforms is far from infinite, and that the situation may not be as hopeless as many of us think. Yes, Facebook is a highly profitable, highly valued company. And yes, it is an effective lobbyist, wielding unique political influence as a global online intermediary. But, it creates relatively few jobs, is deeply reliant on user popularity and endless growth, and has drawn much of its profitability from advertising, which, in the grand scheme of things, has always been a marginal industry and may have plateaued already.
Keeping corporations accountable is certainly difficult, but feasible nonetheless. It takes blood and treasure, political will and public pressure, and, most importantly, time. In the case of Facebook, the fight is only just beginning.
Robert Gorwa researches platforms as a doctoral student in the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. His writing on technology and society has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Wired UK, Washington Post, and other popular outlets.