By controlling the attention of over 2 billion people, Mark Zuckerberg is tearing up the fabric of society and destroying democracy.
US President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office as the big boss of the world’s largest military. He has his finger on the nuclear trigger and can kill anyone with a drone strike. Conventional wisdom dictates that the famously thin-skinned former reality TV star who tweets “crazy stuff” at 3 am is the most dangerous man on the planet.
It turns out that might not entirely be true. Today, nearly half of American adults get their news on Facebook. They see what their friends share and the ads that the social media network sends their way. During the 2016 US presidential election, Cambridge Analytica used personal data of 87 million Facebook members to send them fake news. Initially, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, rejected the evidence that fake news had influenced the election as a “pretty crazy idea.”
It transpires that we do live in a crazy world, and the 34-year-old Zuckerberg is the father of 72-year-old Trump. As Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian at Harvard and Stanford who champions the British Empire, rightly remarked, “no Facebook, no Trump.”
Zuckerberg has not only enabled Trump to ride to power, but he has also helped demagogues around the world. Those inciting riots in India or genocide in Myanmar have used WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned platform, to deadly effect. Numerous newspapers from The Daily Telegraph to The Washington Post have described how dictators use and love Facebook.
Yet nowhere has the company been more toxic than in the Philippines. By offering free, basic internet services, Facebook has become the window to the world for 69 million Filipinos. The company has created a society where “the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result,” says journalist Davey Alba. She adds, “Facebook treats the Philippines as an absentee landlord might, occasionally dropping by to address minor issues but often shrugging off responsibility for the larger, more problematic stuff.”
It is an uncomfortable fact that no dictator wields the amount of power that Zuckerberg does. No leader rules over a realm as vast as him or knows as much about so many people as he does. Facebook’s company page tells us that it had 1.47 billion daily active users on average for June 2018 and 2.23 billion monthly active users for the same month. This beats the number of Christians, Muslims or Hindus who show up at churches, mosques or temples to pray.
Facebook may have lost $120 billion in market capitalization on July 26, roughly 20% of its value, but billions of people still use Facebook and Facebook-owned platforms, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, on a daily basis. In the past, emperors and priests in positions of power became a law unto themselves. This probably led to the hoary adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Emperor Zuckerberg is no exception.
BIG BOSS OF THE NEW BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY
On September 17, The New Yorker published a wordy piece by Evan Osnos titled, “Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before it Breaks Democracy?” Osnos has done a fair bit of research on Zuckerberg but, like many American journalists, cravenly genuflects before the rich and powerful. Explicit in the headline is the assumption that Facebook is about to break democracy and that only Zuckerberg can save it by “fixing” his Frankenstein. Trump, Congress and over 235 million voters in the US or the many billions and their leaders elsewhere are obviously incapable of doing so.
Osnos shares this belief in the benevolence of Zuckerberg with hundreds of millions, if not billions. Sadly, this popular belief lacks a solid foundation. At the end of the day, Facebook is a for-profit company. Zuckerberg has majority voting rights thanks to a dual-class share structure that leaves him in complete control. He may spout homilies to human rights, community and connecting people, but his fiduciary duty is to maximize returns to shareholders. Like the British East India Company before him, he may care for people in his empire because of altruism or enlightened interest, but he is responsible only to his shareholders and accountable only to himself.
Just as the British East India Company did some good things, so does Facebook. Yet Zuckerberg is akin to the robber barons of yore who made fortunes from people’s addictive behavior. Opium was the drug of choice for the British East India Company. Social attention is what billions crave today. And, like opium, it turns out that this addiction is “negatively associated with well-being.” These are not observations of aging grandparents, but of an extensive study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
As in earlier generations, teenagers are most at risk. Professor Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University has found that teens tend to report symptoms of depression when they spend more time on smartphones. They also feel more unhappy the more they use Facebook. Teens are sleeping less, reading fewer books and news articles, and reducing their engagement with the real world. The spiking rates of depression and suicide among teens are proof of an acute mental health crisis that Zuckerberg insists on turning a Nelson’s eye to.
Facebook is like the British East India Company in another important way. It has colonized a country as populous as India, a continent as vast as Africa and even a democracy as robust as the United Kingdom. A member of the Competition Commission of India confessed to this author that he felt impotent and depressed because Facebook would not even bother to answer his letters. Giving him information to investigate collusion or other anti-competitive practices was out the question. It is indubitably and incontrovertibly true that Facebook pays scant regard to concerns, challenges and problems of the billions of darker skinned natives who inhabit its global realm.
This is not unsurprising. Osnos records that Zuckerberg is fascinated, if not fixated by Emperor Augustus. He quotes Zuckerberg as crediting the “really harsh approach” of Augustus for “two hundred years of world peace.” Zuckerberg may have married a lady of Chinese origin, but he is a classic privileged white man who conflates the Roman Empire with the entire world. He also finds the violence of Augustus and his successors worthwhile because it supposedly brought peace to the world. Perhaps the Gauls, the Goths and even Jesus might disagree.
Like Augustus, Zuckerberg’s “desire to win” is legendary. In the early days of Facebook when its motto was “Move fast and break things,” Zuckerberg ended meetings with a war cry, “Domination!” He has commented on the zero-sumness of network effects, which translates simply as winner takes all. Facebook’s high value depends on everyone in your circle being on it. Then you can post photos for all your friends to see, you can invite them to parties you host, and you can target ads to the exact audience you target.
It is important to note that sub-Saharan Africa, India, China and Southeast Asia do not register in Zuckerberg’s view of the past. In Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius, Ezra Callahan muses how the direction of the internet was influenced by “well-off white boys.” Today, with Sheryl Sandberg leaning in, Facebook and the direction of the internet is determined by powerful white men and a few white women who pay scant regard to blackie natives, brownie fuzzie wuzzies and yellow chinkies, in the same vein as the big bosses of the British East India Company.
LYING, LOBBYING AND LARGESSE WEAKEN DEMOCRACY
If Emperor Zuckerberg was only causing damage to the likes of India, Myanmar and Philippines, those in the developed world could ignore the perils of Facebook. Sadly, the company and other social media giants threaten American democracy itself. None other than Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and one of the pioneers of the internet, has made this argument because Facebook more than others has facilitated the rise of echo chambers, fake news, hate and more.
Not only Omidyar but also former confidantes of Zuckerberg are worried about Facebook. Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice-president of user growth, has observed, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” He candidly admitted, “I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds… that something bad could happen.”
Sean Parker, the glamorous first president of Facebook immortalized in the movie The Social Network, has described the company’s expertise as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” In his words, its goal: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” More time and attention translate into more advertisements, leaving the likes of Zuckerberg, Sandberg and Facebook shareholders laughing all the way to the bank.
In its pursuit of growth, time, attention and money, Zuckerberg, Sandberg and Co have been less than economical with the truth. In an article for Slate, Will Oremus examined Zuckerberg’s recent testimony to Congress and parsed out five of the emperor’s most dishonest answers. To be fair to Zuckerberg, he finally admitted not taking a “broad enough view of our responsibility” and not dealing with fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech and data privacy adequately.
Furthermore, Zuckerberg apologized, a pattern he has followed since 2003. In a tour de force in Wired earlier this year, Zeynep Tufekci examined Zuckerberg’s apologies over 14 years. During this period, Facebook used 700,000 people as guinea pigs to do mood manipulation experiments, finding that emotions on social media are contagious. It launched the news feed without any notice to anyone. It violated people’s privacy repeatedly with wanton abandon. In case Facebook’s actions caused too much outrage, Zuckerberg offered “a tepid apology” but stayed calm and carried on.
By 2008, Tufekci points out that all of Zuckerberg’s four posts on Facebook’s blog were apologies. By 2010, Zuckerberg, who is elusive to everyone except close friends and family, had declared privacy to be no longer a “social norm.” His subjects, addicted to dopamine hits of incessant attention, voted by continuing to use his medium and post ever-increasing amounts of personal information.
Only with President Trump’s victory and reports of Russian interference in the US elections did Zuckerberg feel some real heat for the very first time. Yet this heat did not prove to be too high because it turns out that Congress is still in awe of this young billionaire. Sadly, the Senate kowtowed before Emperor Zuckerberg instead of holding his feet to the fire. One senator kicked off the hearing by calling Facebook “pretty extraordinary,” another did not know that the company sells advertisements, and one asked Zuckerberg what regulations should Congress draft for his company. The hearing was absolutely risible and demonstrated that Congress did not understand Facebook, making any regulation improbable if not impossible.
There is another little matter that makes Congress impotent in the face of Zuckerberg. Money plays a big role in American politics and Zuckerberg has a few billion US dollars in his pocket. His friends are also not poor. Besides, the US believes in the cult of success. Any entrepreneur who has made many billions commands reverence. Therefore, in the heart of the world’s most powerful democracy, Zuckerberg can afford to be cursory in his apology and crow that Facebook is “an idealistic and optimistic company” despite his much checkered past. And the emperor knows that people will believe him.
Such is the power of Facebook that popular leaders like Barack Obama and Narendra Modi have made their way to Facebook to pay obeisance to Emperor Zuckerberg. Obama and Modi are pin-up idols of the left and the right in the world’s two biggest democracies. Yet both of them found Zuckerberg’s stardust useful for their electoral prospects. With so many people addicted to Facebook, most politicians are mortally afraid of upsetting Facebook. After all, they use Facebook to reach their voters, canvass donors and organize their campaigns.
Facebook is also playing the traditional lobbying game not only in Washington, but also in other capitals. The company spent $3.67 million on lobbying in the second quarter of 2018. In addition, unlike other tech giants, Facebook has an ace up its sleeve. Sandberg, its frighteningly savvy No. 2, went to Harvard for both her undergraduate and business degrees. She worked for Larry Summers, a key aide of Bill Clinton, infamous for his arrogance, cozy ties with Wall Street and aggressive financial deregulation.
Sandberg is smooth as silk and is rumored to have political ambitions. Unsurprisingly, she packs an iron fist under a velvet glove. She reportedly told James P. Steyer, when he expressed concerns about children using social media, that “the best thing for young kids was to spend more time on Messenger Kids.” In a virtuoso performance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sandberg cloaked herself in patriotism and spoke of an “arms race” against opponents to protect democracy. Senators purred demurely in approval.
Facebook is also adopting the revolving door employment policy that once made Goldman Sachs and McKinsey infamous. For instance, Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson and many others moved from Goldman Sachs to the US Treasury and returned to cushy jobs on Wall Street when they retired. The Obama White House was full of bright young things from McKinsey with no dirt under their fingernails. Now, Zuckerberg pays the salaries of the likes of David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign chief, and Aneesh Raman, one of Obama’s speechwriters.
Even as Facebook becomes more powerful, there are fewer and fewer journalists there to hold its feet to the fire. Few people read these days and even fewer pay to read. Content is free and news media is in mortal danger. There is little money left for investigative or independent journalism.
Even when hard-hitting articles are published, they rarely get much attention because people are almost incessantly distracted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Tinder. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that there were five jobs in public relations for every job in journalism. In 2018, that ratio is definitely worse and some estimate it to be 8:1, if not higher.
Tellingly, Zuckerberg told Osnos that he mostly reads news aggregators. The emperor neither browses many news websites, nor does he pick up any newspaper and read it “front to back.” He does not need to. Zuckerberg can hire all the public relations professionals to spin the news, making him look brilliant, brave and benevolent.
Before too long, President Trump will be out of office. He is too old, too erratic and too unpopular. Even if he wins a second term, there is an expiry date to his reign. Meanwhile, Emperor Zuckerberg can rule his realm till his dying day, hiring smooth operators, buying elected representatives, avoiding scrutiny and influencing the people themselves. In our brave new world, the cool and calculating Zuckerberg is far more sinister than the blusterous and blundering Trump.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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Author: Atul Singh