Facebook: When Free Speech Costs Money

by Benjamin Studebaker

Very quietly, so quietly that it has almost gone without notice, Facebook has begun to charge its users to have their posts shown to more than a small percentage of their friends, fans, and subscribers. New posts on Facebook now come with a “promote” option, where you have the opportunity to pay Facebook money to ensure that your posts actually reach the people who have signed up to receive them. Facebook, famous for its promise that “it’s free, and always will be”, seems to have skirted this issue by charging not to be a user of Facebook, but to actually have your material seen by more than a tiny number of people. Do not mistake this post for a rant about Facebook however–though I myself am impacted (even as this blog has grown more popular over the last several months, the number of referrals from Facebook I receive has indeed dropped since I got the “promote” option), I am not here to trash Facebook but to point out what this move by Facebook more broadly represents–a move toward a fusion of free speech with income, and the debilitating effects this has on democracy.

The special thing about the internet and social networking, the thing that was supposed to make it so useful to revolutionaries and activists, was that, beyond the capacity to pay for a computer, internet access, and perhaps a domain name, anyone, regardless of income, had equal access. You can write a WordPress blog for next to nothing and, if you do good work and try hard, you can get a message out there. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all of these tools make it more easier for people with less money and less privilege to gain equal access and equal opportunity to the tools of mass communication. While television, radio, and print media remain the exclusive domains of the moneyed and connected, the internet was meant to be, and still broadly is, different. This is why Facebook’s move is so troubling, because it directly connects access to speech proliferation to ability to pay, and it is the first major social networking website to do so. If others follow suit, we will soon find that the internet no longer serves this essential function of helping to break down plutocratic monopoly on the instruments of communication.

The frightening thing is that most of us won’t even be aware that our communicative reach has been pushed back. Facebook made no effort to inform me that my posts were not going to reach as many people as they did previously. You can continue to put your material out there, a small group of people will see it and respond to give you the illusion of having put out a message, while the vast majority of even your stated followers never see or hear of it. This is a quiet reduction in free speech, not legislated by a state, but made by a private company for its own profit, taking advantage of the fact that it is not subject to state regulation. The very absence of internet regulation that makes it a free market of ideas is now being used to silence those ideas. Instead of being in thrall to a government that is at least responsible for our collective well being, social network users are in thrall to a company whose only object is profit. This is not to suggest that Facebook is behaving immorally–seeking profit is what private sector entities are supposed to do, particularly publicly traded ones that have a responsibility to shareholders to maximise gains. It is however to suggest that what Facebook is doing is not in the interests of its users. As the users of Facebook amount to the majority of citizens in the most developed countries, what Facebook is doing is harming the wider public as a whole. It would be different if Facebook had credible competitors that users could switch to to circumnavigate the speech reductions, but none of Facebook’s competitors has the level of organisation or usage to be viable in this capacity. In this case, what we have is a private monopoly, and the only serious solution would be state intervention to either bring it under a regulatory regime or break it up. If Facebook views those alternatives as worse than giving up the new promotion charges, so much the better, but the state should be prepared to intervene to protect the free speech of the citizenry otherwise.

This is not unlike the Citizens United decision, which permitted corporations and unions to use their funds to create political speech, as well as the SpeechNow versus FEC case, which permitted the formation of Super Political Action Committees, campaign organisations which can accept donations of unlimited size provided that they have no official tie to the campaigns of specific candidates. Both of those cases have contributed to a new plutocratic era in democratic politics, in which those with more money have substantially more ability to make themselves heard and influence public policy than those with less money. This is not merely a small matter, either–the entire theory of democratic legitimation is dependent on the notion that democracy is able to treat all citizens as free and equal people in a way that other systems of government don’t.

According to democratic theorists, the advantage of democracy is that each citizen has an equal voice in decision making through the equal distribution of votes of equal strength. I have found this theory questionable in the past for a variety of reasons, but Facebook and Citizens United open up a new line of attack on the concept. If the proliferation of a view has nothing to do with its quality or popularity, if anyone, provided they have access to sufficient funds, can get any message across, then there are some serious issues:

  1. Not all citizens have equal say and equal consideration–the Koch brothers may only have two votes, but they have the power to tell everyone in America what they think and to fund Super PACs that will only support candidates that agree with their views. You and I can do no such thing, and in this society we are fundamentally politically unequal to the Koch brothers merely by fact of our comparative poverty.
  2. Deliberative democracy (Habermas’ famous justification) does not produce results based on the interaction of ideas freely and equally competing–the ideas of the rich will receive disproportionate coverage regardless of their quality or popular appeal.

The net result of these two things? The society we live in is popularly called democratic, but it does not resemble the system described in democratic political theory. A state that does not treat all of its citizens as free and equal politically is not a democratic state. The basis of this difference in treatment? Pecuniary position. What we have here, folks, is a plutocratic republic, or, what the ancient Greeks and Romans would call an oligarchy. The fact that you vote does not mean that you are given any options that do not receive gargantuan amounts of funding from plutocrats, that you ever hear in the media perspectives that are not either tolerated or endorsed by this oligarchy. You have the illusion of choice, the illusion of freedom, but not freedom itself. Only a truly impartial state, one not in thrall to a combination of the average voter and the average plutocrat, can truly treat its citizens as free and equal people. Once again–sophiarchy.