Mark Zuckerberg’s company feeds utopian delusions, but in reality it is just a billionaire’s media outlet grinding out a fortune
As I look around and I travel around the world, I’m starting to see people and nations turning inward, against this idea of a connected world and a global community. I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others.”
Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, uttered those noble words in April, at one of his company’s conferences. Clearly, the stuff about travelling the globe was rhetorical window dressing: he was channelling Silicon Valley’s revulsion at the rise of Donald Trump.
Five months later, after Facebook had been accused of anti-conservative bias, there came a fascinating twist. One of the company’s board members – Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal – was revealed as a Trump supporter who was about to donate $1.25m to the candidate’s campaign, and Zuckerberg’s tone appeared to shift. “I know there are strong views on the election this year both in the US and around the world,” he wrote. “We see them play out on Facebook every day. Our community will be stronger for all our differences – not only in areas like race and gender, but also in areas like political ideology and religion.”
In the midst of the current controversy about Facebook spreading fake news, its alleged role in Trump’s victory, and the hate and division sown online by the president-elect and his people, those words surely look absurd, something highlighted again by Zuckerberg’s conclusion: “That’s ultimately what Facebook is about: giving everyone the power to share our experiences, so we can understand each other a bit better and connect us [sic] a little closer together.”
Yet again the liberal utopianism that has defined the tech milieu’s self-understanding since its birth has bumped up against the real world. Indeed, Zuckerberg’s apparent delusion was all the more remarkable because he was seemingly in denial about Facebook itself. As the US election campaign raged on, did its inward-looking bubbles of like-minds and dissemination of downright lies feel as if they were connecting everyone “a little closer”?
We now know what Facebook’s algorithms did to its handling of the election, and what the “news” pouring into millions of users’ feeds was partly composed of. According to a study by BuzzFeed, the 20 top performing false US election stories – all but three of which were pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton – from hoax sites and “hyper-partisan” blogs generated 8,711,000 Facebook shares, reactions and comments. The figure for the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites, by contrast, was 7,367,000. Zuckerberg says the notion that the fake news Facebook presented to its 156 million US users might have played a key role in the result is a “crazy idea”, but the numbers point to an altogether more unsettling reality.
Whatever his other qualities, Zuckerberg combines his huge wealth and power with an obvious naivety. What he and many of his tech contemporaries fail to see is something fundamental to the insidious way that politics and ideology work. Anyone over 40 who studied social sciences will know the basics: precious few organisations and institutions, not least those built to turn a profit, can credibly claim to act neutrally; and once you are dealing in the currency of information it becomes all but impossible. This is the sudden realisation he and his company now find themselves staring at.
Angst about the online world has been simmering away for years, but this latest burst feels like a watershed. Even the pope – who made-up news stories have identified as a Trump supporter – has passed comment this week, elegantly comparing fake news with the eating of excrement.
By way of proving that what is afoot is beyond the imaginings of the most dystopian fiction, a prolific source of misinformation has been identified as the small town of Veles in Macedonia, whose entrepreneurial younger residents have been hurling fake news at the US, and making serious money. And look at what we now know as “Pizzagate”, which led to one of the most remarkable stories of the past week: an armed man walking into a Washington DC takeaway, seemingly determined to avenge a child sexual abuse ring supposedly run, according to an online news “story”, from its back rooms by Hillary Clinton.
But we should not confine unease about Facebook and fake news to such extremities. As I have seen first hand, far away from Trumpland, exchanges about immigration in troubled Lincolnshire market towns can feel as if they are defined by the wound-up, often scurrilous stuff people read online and then share. Equally, everywhere from big cities to out-of-the-way villages, it is sometimes difficult to have a conversation about such huge subjects as Brexit and Scottish independence without them being sidelined into fantasy and paranoia by the alternate realities accessible via phones and PCs.
Obviously, Facebook is not the only guilty party. Carole Cadwalladr’s exposé of Google in the Observer showed the way its search results are apparently being gamed by some of the most bigoted and mendacious forces in the online world. Again, a certain naivety might be to blame: as this happens, a banal motto such as Google’s former slogan “Don’t be evil” is not much of a guide for action, any more than Zuckerberg’s claims that he and his company are somehow in the business of furthering human understanding and all-round goodness. It may be a sign of Zuckerberg’s anxieties that he has been floating proposals for clamping down on fake news. “Some of these ideas will work well, and some will not,” he says, with his customary blankness. Meanwhile, Facebook’s corporate blurb highlights an attitude to veracity that seems downright strange. “People have told us they like seeing authentic stories the most,” runs one recent statement co-authored by a “user experience researcher”. The truth, it seems, might be less something to be valued in itself than yet another route to “engagement”, and money.
Might this be the moment when, at last, Facebook’s power and methods become politically contested? It is long overdue. At the very least, we ought to carry on challenging its claims to be a mere tech company, and start treating it as an accountable media outlet. More generally, we still await a new breed of modern radical who communicates via so-called dumbphone, emphasises face-to-face contact, and tells the world that Facebook might be less an embryonic utopia than something much less inspiring.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s more of a huge machine for monetising the small details of people’s lives, and disseminating a great cloud of trivia, half-truths and falsehoods – which, whatever its creators’ intentions, serves the same systemic purpose as most media platforms owned by billionaires ever did: distracting us from reality, and keeping the mechanisms that have made fortunes for a lucky few grinding on, and on.