Facebook isn’t that Different from News Corp or Standard Oil

by Benjamin Studebaker

My Facebook is flooded with folks talking about Cambridge Analytica, the firm that bought access to Facebook user data and used it to help design political propaganda for organisations seeking to help the Trump campaign. But you know what I find most surprising about this story? The fact that people find it surprising in the first place. This possibility was always implied by Facebook’s business model. It creates a platform that makes communicating with people easier. We don’t have to pay money to use it, but in exchange Facebook takes our data and sells it to whoever wants to buy. Did we really think that political organisations wouldn’t be interesting in buying Facebook data? Did we really think that Facebook wouldn’t sell it to them? This implication has stood in front of our faces for years. It’s clearly implied by Facebook’s very nature–it is literally a firm which induces people to give it private information and then sells that information to the highest bidder. Why can’t the bidders have political motivations? Facebook is a transnational corporation. Why would even expect the bidders to be American?

The confusion about Facebook underlines an important flaw in our understanding of the internet–we keep expecting the internet to be special and different. We say, “How dare the internet enable rich foreigners to meddle in our politics!” But it’s already the case that many of our newspapers and television networks are owned by rich people–some of them even rich foreign people–and those papers and networks regularly peddle false or misleading information to get us to vote the way the rich want.

Take Rupert Murdoch, an Australian native who gave up his Australian citizenship in the mid-80s to get around FCC restrictions requiring American TV networks to have limited foreign ownership stakes. Murdoch owns newspapers and TV stations in the US, UK, and Australia (including Fox News). Whether we count him as Australian or American, in two of those three countries he is a foreign billionaire who buys domestic media outlets and uses them to attract and sell advertising to a right wing audience. Do his media outlets make the difference in close elections by encouraging the right? They very well might. When right wing blowhards help Murdoch attract an audience advertisers want to sell stuff to, he is more than happy to employ those blowhards and cash those checks. Murdoch either endorses their politics or he doesn’t care what effect they have. Politicians in all three countries cater to the Murdoch press, but nobody investigates them and nobody locks them up.

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When Mark Zuckerberg–another billionaire–lets rich foreigners use Facebook data or the Facebook platform to disseminate their political propaganda, it’s the same kind of thing. It’s just happening on the internet instead of in the world of traditional media. For some reason we seem to think that the internet is some kind of utopian space, free of the political and economic incentives which govern the rest of the media landscape. Why on earth would we think that? The firms which control the internet live and die by their bottom lines, just like traditional media companies. If selling data to shady political movements and distributing those movements’ shady political propaganda helps them make a buck, they’ll do it. It’s what capitalism incentivises them to do.

If we want them to stop, we have to make them stop. We have to regulate big media conglomerates, and maybe even break them up or nationalise them. This takes a while. When a new industry comes on the scene, the state doesn’t understand it at first. It waits to regulate it and to break up monopolies within it until the industry begins to have a disruptive social impact. Once the impact is there, the state takes the time to figure out what’s going on and how best to manage it. We might be coming to that time with social media and with Silicon Valley more generally. The more these tech companies affect our lives and disrupt the social sphere, the larger the incentive for the state to begin intervening in their affairs. Sooner or later, it will do something. Don’t believe me? Ask the Rockefellers about Standard Oil. Ask AT&T where all the baby bells went. Sooner or later, the muckrakers and trust-busters win out, and too big to fail firms really do get reigned in and broken up. It takes a while and it requires a lot of sustained public pressure, but sooner or later it happens. What happens next is less clear–sometimes we regulate these sectors well, and sometimes they manage to find new ways around the rules, and a great game of cat and mouse begins.

The tech companies know that the more disruption they cause socially the greater the incentive for the state to regulate them more heavily. They fight back the way new industries have always fought against the closing of the regulatory frontier–through a mix of lobbying and appeasement to deflect attention and throw us off their scent. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google spent $50 million on lobbying the US government in 2017. Google spent more than any other single firm. These guys are totally and completely spooked. Watch Zuckerberg promise to take the news and politics out of the Facebook newsfeed, hoping that we’ll stop thinking of Facebook as a political actor:

Watch YouTube divert all its ad revenue away from channels with controversial political content, forcing them to use merchandise and donations to survive:

In the meantime, Twitter de-verifies the accounts of users they don’t want to be blamed for. These people are terrified of us.

Each of these moves is about appeasing critics who think that social media has become a platform for extremism. The trouble is that once social media companies begin making political interventions to appease centrist critics, they create new critics on both the left and right. These companies used to view themselves as apolitical utilities, offering equal-opportunity platforms. But now that presence in the Facebook newsfeed, YouTube monetization, and Twitter verification all depend on whether the company agrees with your substantive content, the cat is out of the bag. These firms are now all clearly publishers with editorial policies. That makes them obviously political, whether they want to be or not, and once a corporation is obviously political it doesn’t take too long before the state has to have policies on it. The fact that these companies are all heavily lobbying the government indicates that they know how political they are–they’re just desperate to avoid being treated as such.

They can run, but they can’t hide. And the more they try to run from this by chucking money into politics and trying to police the feeds and content of their own users, the faster the end will come. They’re brachiosaurs in a tar pit–the more they struggle to get out, the quicker they sink. The digital frontier is beginning to close. The writing is on the wall–the Facebook wall. They’d be better off working with the state to find a regulatory scheme they can live with. The more they fight it, the more likely it is that when the state does come for them, it does so in a foul mood. Nobody likes the state when it’s angry.