Is It Finally Time to Boycott Facebook?

It is impossible to look at the landscape of America, at this burning city on a hill, and not weep. Or scream.

Because this blog advocates the legal rights of creators (copyrights), and because those rights historically enjoy bipartisan support, I have tried to maintain a politically balanced tone when writing about most policy matters. That was a lot easier before Donald Trump became President. It is not my fault the Republican party is presently stuck with a leader about whom the kindest thing one can say is that he’s a moron. That’s a problem real conservatives and Republicans are going to have to work out for themselves. And if they don’t, these fires are not going to be extinguished for a very long time.

With regard to the broader editorial focus of this blog—the one that questions the value of the digital-age experiment and the industry behind it—it is now impossible to discuss that topic without placing Trump, and his supporters, squarely in the column of an unqualified evil—an enemy of humanity and republican democracy. Not that anyone would accuse me of being particularly kind about Trump in other posts, but today, there is a more acute question that needs to be asked:  if we want to end this dystopian circus of an administration, would it help to boycott Facebook? 

Ever since the 2016 election and revelations of data manipulation and fake news, we have been inundated by editorials opining as to what social media platforms should or should not do about various forms of toxic content on their sites. The utopian narrative that “all content is speech, and platforms owe a duty to the speech right” has been cracking under the weight of its own folly for three years, and it finally snapped last week when Twitter and Facebook took divergent paths on the matter of fact-checking the President.  

Apropos Trump’s largely-theatrical spat with Twitter and the toothless Executive Order he signed on Thursday, scholar Zeynep Tufeckci, writing for The Atlantic, expounds on some of the reasons why Trump really has no intention of tightening the legislative screws on Silicon Valley—even if he could. In particular, Tufekci notes the symbiosis that exists between Trump and Facebook …

The relationship is so smooth that Trump said Zuckerberg congratulated the president for being ‘No. 1 on Facebook‘ at a private dinner with him. Bloomberg has reported that Facebook’s own data-science team agreed, publishing an internal report concluding how much better Trump was in leveraging ‘Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes.’ This isn’t an unusual move for Facebook and its clients. Bloomberg has reported that Facebook also offered its ‘white glove‘ services to the Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, to help him ‘maximize the platform’s potential and use best practices.”’

When Zuckerberg appeared on Fox News and criticized Twitter for fact-checking a handful of Trump’s tweets, most of the response I saw was well-earned mockery. I shared the meme that said “Mark Zuckerberg—Dead At 36—Says Social Media Sites Should Not Fact Check Posts.” I mean, that’s pretty funny.

All sneering aside, though, Zuckerberg’s statement on Fox only repeated the same rhetoric that has been nodded at for years by internet users across the political spectrum—all buying the bullshit that these platforms make democracy work better. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said. And that is not news. It’s the same gibberish that Big Tech, the EFF, the ACLU, PublicKnowledge, Techdirt, and every other techno-utopian voice has been repeating for more than a decade. 

It is ultimately necessary that people understand why Zuckerberg’s position is misguided outside the context of fact-checking the most dangerous president in modern history. But in the meantime, if the goal is to stymie Trump’s assault on America, then one thing we could do is to stop giving Zuckerberg so much of our time and data for free. Every post, especially every substantive post, feeds the data machine that, according to Tufekci’s statement above, team Trump happens to be so good at leveraging. And for which team Facebook is apparently congratulating them. Further, Tufekci tells us …

“In 2016, Facebook’s own internal research team found that ’64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools’ and, if left unchecked, Facebook would feed users ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.’ The same research team also found that fake news, spam, clickbait, and inauthentic users inevitably included ‘a larger infrastructure of accounts and publishers on the far right than on the far left.’”

So what do we do with this information? Because the data seem to suggest that Americans who want to disarm Trump—and that happens to be most Americans—should in fact deny Facebook their voluntary input. Far more meaningful than refusing to patronize a business because one does not like the CEO’s politics, if the lion’s share of Americans simply bailed on Facebook, that would seriously mess up Zuckerberg’s game and, by extension, Trump’s game. We could just MySpace that shit. But can we?

I know. It’s like we’re all teenagers again (okay, in my generation) talking to that girlfriend or boyfriend, saying, “No, you hang up first.” It’s why Zuckerberg really doesn’t care if we call him a smug pinhead on his own platform. As long as we don’t leave, he’s laughing all the way to a very large bank. Our real friends and family are on Facebook. It’s the only way some of us keep in touch at all, even without the restrictions imposed by a pandemic. So, unless we all say “One, two, three, go,” and hang up simultaneously, it ain’t gonna happen. One friend over the weekend posted a simple statement that seems to sum up how many are lately feeling …

“It’s a tough question. My friends are all here and I use it to keep track of photos and promote [my work]. But yes evil and destroying our culture so … ???”

Evil and destroying our culture. Who would hesitate to abandon such a service? And how distinct is that sentiment from Facebook’s original tech-bro imperative motto, Move fast and break things.? Anyone who reads this blog knows that I believe social media does more harm than good for democratic societies. In between the connections and the celebrations, it is almost impossible to avoid feeding on a steady diet of outrageous content—much of which is not only untrue but has been purposely crafted by professional trolls working to exacerbate division and hate.

Add to this mix the real racists, anti-semites misogynists, and accelerationists—and a president who unrepentantly throws fuel on all those fires—and we need to understand that there is no way for the rest of us to entirely avoid feeding the riot as long as we remain part of the data set. Twitter may be the medium we think of as Trump’s favorite propaganda toy, but it looks like Facebook is the most powerful weapon in his arsenal. And like it or not, we are all providing the ammo.

On the other hand, the point of a boycott (even if it were possible) is not necessarily to shut down a business, but to force it to change its practices. And that’s the larger question—not whether we need to leave Facebook per se, but to ask what kind of cultural and policy changes are necessary in order to maximize the positive effects of social platforms and minimize the harm they cause. The techno-utopian faith that the good will overwhelm the bad (i.e. the wisdom of crowds) has proven false. A minority of bad actors online, like a few bad cops or a few violent protestors, can inflict permanent damage. And the challenges presented are systemic—cultural, legal, and economic. 

The folly of Trump’s Executive Order, oddly enough, points to the first step:  recognizing what the EO does not—that social platforms are not defenders of the speech right, and that the speech right itself has been grotesquely distorted thanks, in large part, to social platforms. If we can begin with the premise that not everything posted to the internet is protected speech–and that even if it is protected speech, platforms have no obligation to support it–we might be able to recognize that the plan for better social platform governance is not so novel as the industry tries to make it seem. The developers ebulliently call their spaces “communities” but have thus far rarely looked to community for guidance. 

It may be arduous in practice to weed out the hate mongers and provocateurs, but it is not so complicated in principle as Silicon Valley and its PR machine have made it sound. Facebook is no more obligated to host a white supremacist page than my local cafe is to put a KKK poster in its window. Communities say No to bad actors all the time. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, et al can do the same thing, and it is long past the moment when they should stop wringing their hands each time they finally make a moral decision. Like when Cloudflare dropped The Daily Stormer in 2017, and one of its team members wondered if that was “the day the internet dies.” Time to grow up. 

It is a tragic reality for the nation that far too much material that fits the descriptions misleading, violence-inciting, hate-mongering, and harassing has been mislabeled “conservative” because the President uses social media to amplify that kind of content. Consequently, I get why Facebook feels it has a Trump problem, but that’s tough shit for Zuckerberg. We all have a Trump problem. He is a moral hazard. A berserker in a nation trying to hold civilization together with its bare hands. And Zuckerberg’s alleged neutrality does not make him a principled actor. It makes him an arms dealer profiting from both sides of a war. 

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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