Facebook is a company that has lost control—not of its business, which has suffered remarkably little from its series of unfortunate events since the 2016 election, but of its consequences. Its old slogan, “Move fast and break things,” was changed a few years ago to the less memorable “Move fast with stable infra.” Around the world, however, Facebook continues to break many things indeed.
In Myanmar, hatred whipped up on Facebook Messenger has driven ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. In India, false child abduction rumors on Facebook’s WhatsApp service have incited mobs to lynch innocent victims. In the Philippines, Turkey, and other receding democracies, gangs of “patriotic trolls” use Facebook to spread disinformation and terrorize opponents. And in the United States, the platform’s advertising tools remain conduits for subterranean propaganda.
Mark Zuckerberg now spends much of his time apologizing for data breaches, privacy violations, and the manipulation of Facebook users by Russian spies. This is not how it was supposed to be. A decade ago, Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, championed Facebook as an agent of free expression, protest, and positive political change. To drive progress, Zuckerberg always argued, societies would have to get over their hang-ups about privacy, which he described as a dated concept and no longer the social norm. “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected,” he wrote in a 2010 Washington Post Op-Ed. This view served Facebook’s business model, which is based on users passively delivering personal data. That data is used to target advertising to them based on their interests, habits, and so forth. To increase its revenue, more than 98 percent of which comes from advertising, Facebook needs more users to spend more time on its site and surrender more information about themselves.
The import of a business model driven by addiction and surveillance became clearer in March, when The Observer of London and The New York Times jointly revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had obtained information about 50 million Facebook users in order to develop psychological profiles. That number has since risen to 87 million. Yet Zuckerberg and his company’s leadership seem incapable of imagining that their relentless pursuit of “openness and connection” has been socially destructive. With each apology, Zuckerberg’s blundering seems less like naiveté and more like malignant obliviousness. In an interview in July, he contended that sites denying the Holocaust didn’t contravene the company’s policies against hate speech because Holocaust denial might amount to good faith error. “There are things that different people get wrong,” he said. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” He had to apologize, again.
It’s not just external critics who see something fundamentally amiss at the company. People central to Facebook’s history have lately been expressing remorse over their contributions and warning others to keep their children away from it. Sean Parker, the company’s first president, acknowledged last year that Facebook was designed to cultivate addiction. He explained that the “like” button and other features had been created in response to the question, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Chamath Palihapitiya, a crucial figure in driving Facebook’s growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” over his involvement in developing “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Roger McNamee, an early investor and mentor to Zuckerberg, has become a full-time crusader for restraining a platform that he calls “tailor-made for abuse by bad actors.”
Perhaps even more damning are the recent actions of Brian Acton and Jan Koum, the founders of WhatsApp. Facebook bought their five-year-old company for $22 billion in 2014, when it had only fifty-five employees. Acton resigned in September 2017. Koum, the only Facebook executive other than Zuckerberg and Sandberg to sit on the company’s board, quit at the end of April. By leaving before November 2018, the WhatsApp founders walked away from $1.3 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. When he announced his departure, Koum said that he was “taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate Frisbee.”
However badly he felt about neglecting his Porsches, Koum was thoroughly fed up with Facebook. He and Acton are strong advocates of user privacy. One of the goals of WhatsApp, they said, was “knowing as little about you as possible.” They also didn’t want advertising on WhatsApp, which was supported by a 99-cent annual fee when Facebook bought it. From the start, the pair found themselves in conflict with Zuckerberg and Sandberg over Facebook’s business model of mining user data to power targeted advertising. (In late September, the cofounders of Instagram also announced their departure from Facebook, reportedly over issues of autonomy.)
At the time of the acquisition of WhatsApp, Zuckerberg had assured Acton and Koum that he wouldn’t share its user data with other applications. Facebook told the European Commission, which approved the merger, that it had no way to match Facebook profiles with WhatsApp user 1
In Antisocial Media, Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the core problem is the harm Facebook inflicts on democracies around the world. A professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, Vaidhyanathan is a disciple of Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death. In that prescient pre-Internet tract, Postman wrote that Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, portrayed the dystopia most relevant to our age. The dangers modern societies face, Postman contends, are less censorship or repression than distraction and diversion, the replacement of civic engagement by perpetual entertainment.
Vaidhyanathan sees Facebook, a “pleasure machine” in which politics and entertainment merge, as the culmination of Postman’s Huxleyan nightmare. However, the pleasure that comes from absorption in social media is more complicated than the kind that television delivers. It encourages people to associate with those who share their views, creating filter bubbles and self-reinforcing feedback loops. Vaidhyanathan argues that by training its users to elevate feelings of agreement and belonging over truth, Facebook has created a gigantic “forum for tribalism.”
He describes Zuckerberg’s belief that people ought to care more about Facebook’s power to “connect” them than about how it uses their data as a species of techno-narcissism, a Silicon Valley affliction born of hubris and missionary zeal. Its unquestioned assumption is that if people around the world use our tools and toys, their lives will instantly improve by becoming more like ours. This attitude is expressed in products like Free Basics, a mobile app that supplies no-cost access to Facebook and a small selection of other websites in developing countries. In 2016 India’s telecom regulator blocked the app on the basis that a Facebook-curated Internet violated the principle of net neutrality. Marc Andreessen, a Facebook board member, responded on Twitter that the ruling was an expression of India’s “economically catastrophic” anticolonialism—effectively casting Facebook as a beneficent neocolonial power. While both he and Zuckerberg later apologized, both evinced incomprehension that anyone would reject the irresistible bargain of free Facebook.
In the heady days of the Arab Spring, it was easy to get swept along by such naive good intentions and by the promise of social media as a benevolent political force. Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google employee, used a Facebook page as an organizing tool in the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But that early enthusiasm, Vaidhyanathan writes, “blinded many to the ways social media—especially Facebook—could be used by authoritarian governments to surveil, harass, and suppress dissidents.” Egypt is only one of the places where the digital levers of the opposition became the cudgels of the regime, once it discovered how useful they were for disseminating propaganda and monitoring dissent. After the Egyptian revolution was hijacked and then reversed, Ghonim reconsidered his enthusiasm for Facebook. “Social media only amplified that state by amplifying the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers, and hate speech,” he said in a 2015 2
Regulation might make Facebook still more powerful. Network effects, which make a service like Facebook more valuable to users as it grows larger, incline social media companies toward monopoly. The costs of legal compliance for rules like the GDPR, which can be ruinous for smaller start-ups, tend to lock in the power of incumbents even more. Unlike smaller companies, Facebook also has the ability to engage in regulatory arbitrage by moving parts of its business to the cities, states, and countries willing to offer it the largest subsidies and the lightest regulatory touch; it recently shifted its base of operations away from Ireland, where it had gone to avoid taxes, so that 1.5 billion users in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Latin America wouldn’t be covered by the GDPR. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have both said they expect regulation and would welcome the right kind—presumably regulation compatible with more users, more engagement, and more data.
What Facebook surely would not welcome is more vigorous antitrust enforcement. Blocking Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were the best chances for the FTC to prevent the behemoth from becoming an ungovernable superpower. Reversing those decisions through divestiture or at least preventing these platforms from sharing customer data would be the best way to contain Facebook’s influence. At a minimum, the company should not receive approval to acquire any other social networks in the future.
But current antitrust doctrine may not be up to the task of taking on Facebook or the other tech leviathans. The problem is not establishing that Facebook, with 77 percent of US mobile social networking traffic, has a monopoly. It’s that under the prevailing legal standard of “consumer harm,” plaintiffs need to show that a monopoly leads to higher prices, which isn’t an issue with free products. When the Clinton-era Justice Department sued Microsoft in 1998, it argued the case on the novel grounds that the software giant was abusing its Windows monopoly to stifle innovation in the market for Web browsers. There is evidence that Facebook too has tried to leverage its monopoly to preempt innovation by copying its more inventive competitors, as when Instagram cribbed “Stories” and other popular features from Snapchat.
But the Microsoft precedent is not encouraging. After a federal judge found that Microsoft had abused its monopoly and ruled that it should be separated into two companies, the US Court of Appeals overturned the ruling on multiple grounds. The government has brought no comparably ambitious antitrust action against a major technology company in the two decades since. If the Justice Department were to become interested in breaking up Facebook, it would need the FTC to expand its definition of “consumer harm” to explicitly include violations of data privacy.
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Facebook took out full-page ads in leading newspapers to apologize for its “breach of trust.” In May, Zuckerberg took the stage at F8, Facebook’s annual gathering of partners and developers, to say he was sorry yet again. “What I’ve learned this year is that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility,” he said. “It’s not enough to just build powerful tools. We need to make sure that they’re used for good, and we will.” Zuckerberg says the company is now working to develop better artificial intelligence tools to weed out manipulated images and fake posts, although he says this could take a decade. At thirty-four, he’s got the time. We may not.