My usually repressed but now buzzing fear of totalitarian dystopias has reached a new level of sensibility.
Facebook’s recent announcement that they will release information on ads paid for by Russian accounts during the Presidential campaign is a telling move. It categorically represents the influence corporates (especially the ones which are weirdly abstract, based in Silicon Valley, and look really utopian on their landing pages) now hold in global and state affairs, but is also an abrupt reminder of the much more intimate authority which Facebook has over the intricate workings of day to day life – particularly evident given that Trump, as Trump does, has lambasted Facebook for being anti-Trump.
In a Facebook Live, from his personal account, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the social behemoth would provide around 3,000 Russian-linked political ads, after months of refusal to co-operate or engage with American authorities. Which, is fine. There is a pretty strong and emotional argument Zuckerberg presents to justify his company’s historic stonewalling. It’s about freedom of speech. About handing power to the sites’ users. If someone wants to say something, as long as it doesn’t go against Facebook’s ‘Community Standards’, then it can be said. And when it came to the election, Zuckerberg appealed: Facebook users vote based on lived experience – not the things they see on Facebook.
But the more serious case is this: then-President Obama appealed to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news seriously, because there were very real sentiments that, from as early as June 2016, members of a hacking group connected to Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, began to create fake Facebook accounts. According to The Washington Post, they sought to amplify stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee, and extrapolate tensions surrounding divisive issues like Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement.
And whether it transpires that this is the case or not, Zuckerberg’s defense of Facebook’s potential impact goes against every vein of thought or principle applied to academic theory or, even more ironically, his own advertising-based business model. If people were not at all impacted by the content they saw on Facebook, then those paying the company for ads may want to re-evaluate their funding of his $68.5 billion net worth.
Facebook blurs the lines between a literal news feed – replacing oh so dull newspapers – a face to face conversation with every person you’ve ever met, and that uncle at family dinner who fundamentally must tell you about his humble opinion on Brexit, the gays, or the Facebook-Russia-Totalitarian State palava. But it does it well and it does it without the fuss. It’s similar to how Amazon are slowly acquiring more and more sales, at the expense of other, less conglomerate types; or how Uber have (until last week) been quite unstoppable in their quest to destroy the livelihood of every black cab driver, ever. Yet, what puts Facebook on another level of dystopia, is that it brings all of this together, filtered through unmentioned algorithms, to a user base more inconceivable in size than any literal country. Add in the fact that a fuck load of the content on Facebook is the work of media outlets, PR agencies, lobbyists and, evidently, the Russians, it’s just a general shit storm.
It’s a force of complete globalisation which no state is willing to admit to or prepare for, straight out of the unwritten neoliberal manifesto of aspiration and good intentions. Despite this sounding futuristic, dystopian and not yet quite out of the box, businesses taking their own precedence over governments is not anything new. Look back to 2002 and we’ll find a few too many warning signs: where, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s was elected by a landslide in the second round of voting, on promises of leftist social projects and economic liberation. Soon enough, the markets worked their magic: the currency fell by 30%, some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world, and $6 billion in hot money left the country practically overnight. Soundbites were released by the President’s aide: “We are in government but not in power. Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital”.
Facebook isn’t necessarily this particular rendition of the evil face of capitalism, but it’s not much more than a souped-up, Buzzfeed version of it. Intensely social, Facebook organises your digital relationships and attempts to bridge gaps you didn’t even know were there until you made them. But this is done under a wholesome mission statement of revolutionising connectedness. But building bridges under the shadow of an intensely profitable advertising model does not bode well.
Which is not excessively inherently bad. It’s got to pay for itself at the end of the day. But we’re talking about a global company, whose incontestable USP is that they can target ads with invasively pinpoint precision, based on the same details we readily hand over when we like pages, check into locations and just generally use the website. And it’s reached a boiling point, where Facebook’s relatively unchecked service (compared to Instagram’s constant fury over the occasional boob or two) has allegedly enabled interference in the US presidential campaigns.
Conversations need to be had both by governments and global businesses which are frank, honest and responsible; where states update their perspectives and responsibilities to be in line with the paradigm blasting advancements that we’ve seen in technology since the advent of capitalist democracy. Where they have the capabilities of holding global corps to account, beyond dramatic suspensions, because they exist fit and ready for the 21st Century. But also where global businesses, whether it be Facebook, Uber or Amazon, take a broader world view. Where instead of total domination and/or saturation – no matter how ethical they may be intended or presented – they recognise that when tensions exist between their audiences, between demographics and between states, their borderline utopian capitalist visions are unsustainable; and in the meantime potentially facilitating of disastrous consequences.
Words by Matt Bates