Without question, Facebook has had a pronounced effect on our culture. But with the recent revelations involving Cambridge Analytica and their theft and misuse of Facebook data, the story of Facebook’s role in our lives has taken yet another twist.
With new privacy and data management laws set to come into effect in the European Union next month, and with calls for regulation growing in the U.S. as well, PW caught up with University of Virginia Media Studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the forthcoming Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (Oxford University Press), to talk about Facebook’s sprawling influence in our lives, and what happens next.
Since the revelations involving Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg has been apologetic, and has vowed action. So, first question, as someone who has been studying Facebook: How did you find Mark Zuckerberg’s apology?
Siva Vaidhyanathan: It was standard. Everything he said echoed what he’s said every other time over the last decade when people got upset about Facebook’s abuses. It’s like he’s very hurt, as if he’s the victim. I think it’s stunning that one of highest capitalized companies in the world can be so unprofessional in dealing with its core problems. It’s like Mark Zuckerberg still thinks that Facebook is primarily about keeping you up-to-date about your cousin’s new baby.
There are a number of books out there on Silicon Valley, social media, and even on Facebook. How would you describe the book that you’re bringing out this fall?
I would say mine is the first book that really indicts Facebook for its role in messing with our lives. I’ve always thought that there are a handful of companies that are unique in the world, in fact, unique in human history. Google is one. Facebook is another.
My book is also distinct from other books about Facebook because it is about Facebook, globally. There are plenty of accounts of how Trump supporters used Facebook in the campaign, for example, or how Facebook is affecting American journalism. But I felt the story of Facebook globally is much more important, because that’s where most Facebook users are today, and where the growth is. Take India for example. India today has more Facebook users than the United States, and yet India also has so much more potential growth. In the U.S., somewhere between 60% and 70% have Facebook accounts, while roughly a quarter of people in India have Facebook accounts. Facebook still gets a disproportionate amount of revenue from the U.S., but I suspect it wants to shift away from its dependence on American advertisers, especially with talk about regulation in Washington D.C.
The episode with Cambridge Analytica has dominated the headlines, but are we learning much new here? Didn’t we already know Facebook has these kinds of data problems?
Nobody should be surprised that Facebook has been giving away massive amounts of our data without our permission to third parties. That has been standard practice at Facebook for years. But, until Cambridge Anayltica all of Facebook’s well-known data export problems lacked drama, and characters. Cambridge Analytica gave us those characters.
Cambridge Analytica is a super-sleazy company run by some of the worst people in the world who are working for some of the worst people in the world. And now we have the characters: the reclusive billionaire; the bespectacled Eton-educated villain with the English accent; the young, disaffected whistleblower. It’s a good story. But it would have been nice if people had paid as much attention as they are now back in 2010 and 2011, when many of us were raising serious questions about Facebook’s data policies and practices. We could have avoided a lot of this.
I saw Tim Wu speak recently, and he gave an interesting presentation about the problems that can arise when your business is built on capturing people’s attention. He pointed to newspapers in the 1830s, when the audience became the product, and noted that the newspapers in the early 19th Century all ran a ton of well, fake news, to get eyeballs. But eventually, he noted, journalism developed a set of ethics. Newspapers got better. Can social media do the same thing?
No, not at all. There’s just such a huge scale difference and a huge functional difference. No newspaper is so big that it can’t be managed by a set of human eyes and minds over the course of a 24-hour period. No news organization is so big that it can’t be managed. And a newspaper’s value in the marketplace is a function of the quality of that management. You can’t compare what flows out of the New York Times servers or the BBC‘s servers to what flows out of Facebook’s servers.
And almost every problem with Facebook that’s happening now is actually a function of its success, not its failure. We are talking about 2.2 billion people constantly posting whatever they want. And Facebook—I would include YouTube in this, too—is designed to amplify and accelerate things that generate reaction, or as Facebook calls it, “engagement.” Now, what generates the most engagement? Well, puppy pictures do, but also hate speech and conspiracy theories. So the core problems with Facebook are that it has 2.2 billion users, an algorithm that amplifies nonsense, and a powerful advertising system that is data-driven and precise that runs right down the center of your feed, virtually indistinguishable from other posts.
You briefly mentioned the calls for regulation of Facebook and other social media. Do you think regulation is needed?
Yes. I mean, it’s long past due, right? We should have been considering ways of reining in the power of these companies before they became more valuable than General Electric. Before they became more powerful than many governments. And before they became more influential than the BBC. We made a terrible mistake by thinking of these companies as cute experiments, or an interesting phenomenon, or great investments, and didn’t necessarily think through the larger implications of what would happen if they actually got as big and as wealthy as we hoped they would. And I think we now have a real emergency.
The good news is that the European Union will soon introduce the GDRP, which could substantially alter how Facebook and Google do their work. And I think the U.S. and other nations all will have to consider similar data protection measures to rein in the power these companies now have over our daily lives. It would be great if we could jump in and regulate these companies just enough to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad stuff. Unfortunately, that’s going to be hard, and I think we’re going to lose more than we win for a while.
The printed book as a product is sort of the anti-Facebook. It’s solitary, and it requires you to actually invest your time and energy into a longer story, or a sustained argument. In this age of gadgets, do you think the disconnected nature of the book, of reading, will actually become a selling point for publishers?
I do think so. I mean, it will never be how it was, right? The book had about five centuries of something close to monopoly control over our attention. That’s over. But there are still many more people and many more literate people than ever before.
And I think publishers today are aware of the pretty radical shifts in our information ecosystem. They are appropriately sensitive to how ideas bubble up, and in my experience, there’s a lot of sophistication in the publishing world about social media. That said, I do think we need a deeper dive into the broader transformation of our mental universe that has come as a result of companies like Google and Facebook. I think publishers understand that they have to fight back against this pernicious hold on our attention that comes with those companies. And I hope publishers do fight it, rather than capitulate to it.