[In which The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up and Wendy meet Captain Hook, Editor.]
CEO Mark Zuckerberg had recently pledged to spend 2018 trying to fix Facebook. But even the company’s nascent attempts to reform itself were being scrutinized as a possible declaration of war on the institutions of democracy. Earlier that month Facebook had unveiled a major change to its News Feed rankings to favor what the company called “meaningful social interactions.” News Feed is the core of Facebook—the central stream through which flow baby pictures, press reports, New Age koans, and Russian-made memes showing Satan endorsing Hillary Clinton. The changes would favor interactions between friends, which meant, among other things, that they would disfavor stories published by media companies. The company promised, though, that the blow would be softened somewhat for local news and publications that scored high on a user-driven metric of “trustworthiness.”
Facebook deliberately broke privacy and competition law and should urgently be subject to statutory regulation, according to a devastating parliamentary report denouncing the company and its executives as “digital gangsters”.
The final report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news accused Facebook of purposefully obstructing its inquiry and failing to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections.
“Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day,” warned the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins.
Anyone concerned with the anticompetitive state of digital advertising, and how to fix it, should focus like a laser on the circumstances surrounding the 2014 FTC’s pass on formally investigating if the Facebook-WhatsApp acquisition would “substantially lessen competition” under the Clayton Antitrust Act.
That obvious FTC mistake in hindsight, triggered a winner-take-all domino effect that not only tipped Facebook to a social advertising monopoly, but also tipped the overall digital advertising market to the anticompetitive digital advertising cartel that evidently predominates today.
As Facebook sought to become the world’s dominant social media service, it struck agreements allowing phone and other device makers access to vast amounts of its users’ personal information.
Facebook has reached data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers — including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung — over the last decade, starting before Facebook apps were widely available on smartphones, company officials said. The deals allowed Facebook to expand its reach and let device makers offer customers popular features of the social network, such as messaging, “like” buttons and address books.
But the partnerships, whose scope has not previously been reported, raise concerns about the company’s privacy protections and compliance with a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.
They dangle the 4 per cent of annual turnover fines as a maximum possible penalty – €3.7bn, €1.3bn, €1.3bn, and €1.3bn, respectively – though regulators have stressed they won’t be handing out the top level fines willy-nilly.
As early Facebook employees recently told my colleague Nick Bilton,the social network’s rapid evolution into a global power-player has come as a relative shock. “They look at the role Facebook now plays in society, and how Russia used it during the election to elect Trump, and they have this sort of ‘Oh my God, what have I done’ moment,” admitted one. “I lay awake at night thinking about . . . what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way,“ said another. Others in Silicon Valley described [and royalty deadbeat] Mark Zuckerberg as out of touch with reality, unaware of the damage his brainchild has done. While C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg’s indefatigable No. 2, recently acknowledged that “things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened,” she maintained that Facebook is not a news organization. “At our heart we’re a tech company,” she said in an interview last week. “We don’t hire journalists.”
[Editor Charlie sez: That’s straight outta The Circle, they don’t hire journalists, they get news feeds for free.]
When Charles Koch founded the Cato Institute in 1974, his mission (in words from Cato’s journal) was “protecting capitalism from government.” That meant the end of public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as cutting taxes on the rich and government regulations on business. It was a tall order—but now, for the first time in 44 years, Koch and his billionaire libertarian friends like Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel are within sight of their goal of building a true oligarchy (Aristotle’s “rule by the rich”). The current Trump tax cut will deliver billions of dollars into the pockets of the Kochs, the Mercers, the Trumps, and their heirs. Creating a political economy in which the wealthy minority rule over the middle and lower class majority is a hard task. It requires mechanisms that suppress voting and mechanisms for propaganda that convince middle class voters that cultural divisions are more important than economic equality. In both these tasks, Google and Facebook have been a key to the success of the 1 percent.
The role of the internet in propaganda and voter suppression is a two-pronged attack. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World foresaw our current dilemma—Huxley’s assertion was that technology would lead to passivity. The ease with which we could consume mind-numbing entertainment and distractions would ultimately rot our democracy. And this is exactly what may be happening. In the 2016 presidential election, 94 million citizens who were eligible to vote declined to exercise that privilege (compared to the 136 million who voted), according to the United States Election Project. And a much larger percentage of millennials are nonvoters. As Kevin Drum reported in Mother Jones, “In 1967 there was very little difference between the youngest and oldest voters. By 1987 a gap had opened up, and by 2014 that gap had become a chasm.” Beyond the extreme apathy, Republican legislatures in many states have instituted far more restrictive voter ID laws, which have also contributed to lower voting rates. But Steve Bannon wasn’t content to leave voter suppression to chance. One of his brilliant moves was to circulate memes on Facebook targeting only African American voters with the text: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” By all accounts it was a successful voter suppression strategy….
We have been here before. But not since the days at the turn of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt took on the monopolies of John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, has the country faced such concentration of wealth and power.