Liberté, Égalité, ‘Facebookité’

By Tim Hollo July 14, 2017

Today is Bastille Day, the anniversary of a pivotal moment in world history: the storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the victory of the French Revolution, and a key point in global democratisation.

I wonder, is the democratisation of Facebook one of the crucial next steps towards global democracy?

This might sound flippant in the face of the massive crises we face, but bear with me. It’s a worthwhile thought experiment.

From the vantage point of what Guy Rundle calls the “knowledge class” in Australia in 2017, it’s easy to think that democracy was inevitable, that it is complete, and that it is permanent. None of this is the case. Democracy has been hard fought essentially everywhere it has been won and success was never assured; plenty of our world, even in Australia, has not yet truly won it (most starkly for us, see our First Nations peoples’ continuing fight for sovereignty); forms of democracy are still a matter of intense debate (seeking the appropriate balance between participatory and representative democracy, for example); and it remains fragile and under threat.

Clearly, here in late capitalism, one of the central threats to democracy is the ever growing strength of corporatocracy, as governments of all stripes continue to hand over power and control to private corporations, and enable private corporate interests to simply take new levers of power as the develop. The first of these – privatisation – has always been unpopular, as we have seen with deep negative responses to the selling off of public assets from banks to energy networks. The second is far more stealthy, as we as individuals, as well as our governments, consent to hand over more and more of our information, as well as control, to private companies to do with as they please. I believe this is integrally connected to the very legitimate sense of alienation and lack of control that is driving so many people to far right political voices, and which the left is broadly failing to speak to.

How does Facebook fit into this?

Leave aside for a moment the question of its corporate behaviour, and look at what Facebook is.

With 2 billion active users, Facebook is now well and truly the largest country in the world. It is used by us as a space to share and store pictures and stories of what we are doing in our private lives; it is used as an organising space, where people discuss their plans, not just for social life but for political life; it is used to buy, sell, swap and share goods and services; it is used as the primary space for sharing news and information – more people get their news off Facebook feeds now than any other source.

In other words, Facebook is the new agora. It is the new public space. It’s where we meet, where we come together, where we decide what to do.

But it’s a private company. For private profit. It feels like a commons – and many of us treat it as such. But it is enclosed.

Facebook is not democratic. Far from it.

Facebook determines, based on its private corporate interests, what you see in your feed. It decides in what order things appear, and whether they appear at all. It decides who to show your posts to and when. It decides what is legitimate speech and what is to be banned and blocked. It can banish you if it so chooses.

Let’s look at this in a little more detail.

Most obviously, we have Facebook as a tremendously powerful political organising tool. Numerous campaigns and organisations use it to share information, to promote events, to bring people together. Facebook enables this wonderfully. It genuinely supports the creation of those spaces. But it also controls them. It determines how and when to serve up posts to fans and members and supporters. It decides which posts and comments are reasonable and which are hate speech or abuse. It effectively coopts the political space on its platform for its own private purposes. Of course it does. It’s a private corporation.

Are we comfortable with this? If not, what do we do about it?

Secondly, there’s the fundamental democratic need for access to information. As the single largest source of information in the world (aggregating others’ content, of course, but mediating every bit of it), Facebook has a tremendous influence over what we see and hear and read, which gives it immense political power. I’m not just talking about “fake news” here. I’m talking about, for example, the legitimisation and acceptance of racial and gendered abuse. More subtly, I’m talking about how the popularity algorithm makes certain stories with certain political views get shared widely while others, with a different, perhaps less populist bent, get lost. All this is decided by a private, for profit, company.

Are we comfortable with this? If not, what do we do about it?

Thirdly, there’s the power Facebook wields over our culture, and the influence that has on our democracy. Gramsci taught us that power is held most firmly not by direct enforcement but by hegemonic means – by controlling the story of our lives and of our world; by telling us what is real and unreal, what is possible and impossible. I would argue that no single organisation in the world holds as much power over our culture as Facebook.

Three years ago it was revealed that Facebook had been conducting user testing, without our knowledge or permission, seeing whether showing us more positive or negative content would affect our state of mind enough to change the way we ourselves posted. You can read about it here if you weren’t already aware of it. It worked, of course. The more positive content we were shown, the more positive content we shared. And the same for negative content. This is just one example of many of the ability of a company like Facebook to change our moods, to change our views of the world and our place in it, to shift culture.

What does this say about the ability to directly impact on democracy? Keeping populations happy, or keeping us in fear, or keeping us anaesthetised by popular entertainment, is central to political manipulation, and always has been. Facebook now has the capacity to do that at an extraordinary level, and not just with broadcast to the whole of society, but targeting demographics carefully and accurately. And they are a private, for profit, company.

Are we comfortable with this? If not, what do we do about it?

Because of all these factors, many people have tried to set up “ethical” alternatives to Facebook. But none have succeeded. It’s too late. Facebook has the momentum, the inertia, the gravitational pull. By now, it would be far easier to democratise it than replace it.

What do we do? I don’t know. There isn’t a Bastille to storm, even if we wanted to. Can we organise sufficiently to seize control of the means of Facebook production? Can we turn it into a global user-owned cooperative? And how?

I don’t know. But these are questions we have to ask, and not just about Facebook but about the broader impact of tech-based corporatocracy. The development of artificial intelligence, not just in terms of replacing jobs through automation but in how it changes our interface with the world in every way, is among the biggest challenges to democracy we’ve ever seen, with implications for inequality, access and control that cannot be overstated.

The flipside, of course, is that online platforms do provide an extraordinary possibility for democracy, for wide distribution of power and control, for reclaiming and rebuilding commons such as Linux, Wikipedia, true sharing groups and much more. That’s why they are already being used as such, to great effect.

Which direction will we go in? We need to have that conversation before it’s too late.

Liberté, Égalité, ‘Facebookité’!

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