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Facebook Is Not Your Friend (and neither is Hillary Clinton)

       Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people.” On June 18, 2016, Andrew Bosworth, a Vice President at Facebook, wrote an internal memo circulated to Facebook employees. Bosworth (or Boz as he is better known) drew attention to what he called “the ugly truth.” For Bosworth, the reality to which we must resign ourselves is that maybe Facebook is used to find love or build friendships, but maybe Facebook Live is also used to record the murder of a man in Chicago, an event that occurred the day before he wrote the memo. Boz writes: “the ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned.”

       Do metrics actually tell a “true story?” The Silicon Valley champions of “Big Data,” whether found at Facebook or Google, Apple or Amazon, certainly think so. The impulse to rely on “data” is understandable, particularly in an age of epistemic uncertainty where we are plagued with “fake news” and the fear that there might not be “objective truth.” Whereas even “science” can be disputed, as in the debates on climate change, the technocrats point to “data” as that form of evidence which is universally accepted.

      The story about this memo was reported by Buzzfeed in March 2018. Intriguing timing in that it pulls attention from the other recent Facebook scandal: Cambridge Analytica used “harvested data” on 50 million Facebook users, data then sold to the campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. But in my opinion, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a non-story. After all, Obama’s reelection campaign used (exploited?) the same lax Facebook policies, and after that election, Facebook changed some (not all) of its policies to prevent future campaigns from using such practices. The reason that the Cruz and Trump campaigns ultimately benefited from user data is because an operative for Cambridge, Aleksandr Kogan, paid Facebook users to take a survey and the mechanics of the app built for that survey exploited Facebook’s lax privacy settings to allow access to millions of users information. Facebook is responsible for bad policy, but Kogan reported he wanted the data for “academic reasons” when in reality he was helping Cambridge make bank in selling that data to two high-profile presidential campaigns. Notably, Kogan got his data before Facebook updated its policies after the Obama reelection campaign. Cambridge may have violated federal election law and campaign finance law, but even here the story is about imprudent decisions at Cambridge, and not about Facebook.

       But while Facebook may be innocent of objective wrongdoing in the “harvesting data” scandal, it is hardly blameless regarding its ideology, as presented in that memo. Here’s another excerpt from Boz’s memo: “…all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.” Did Facebook intentionally undermine American democracy in order to maximize its profits? I think it’s more likely to say that Facebook is an empire in its own right: it is not that Facebook is actively working against American interests, but rather that what Facebook cares about is growth, aggressive, never-ending growth.

      Robinson Meyers, writing in The Atlantic, summarizes the scandal.  “Facebook is sometimes accused of a kind of corporate imperialism, but Bosworth’s memo speaks more of an ideological imperialism. We will do these ugly things, because our cause is just—this is the cry of imperial ideologies throughout time.” But Meyers notes that this ideology is perfectly neo-liberal, and as likely to be found in the speeches of influential politicians as the writings of a Silicon mogul. Meyers quotes Hillary Clinton, who you’ll remember headed up the State Department which directly implements US foreign policy ideology: “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.” Neoliberalism is an ideology of empire: “what we and others make of it.” Of course, Clinton is not the outlier: you don’t get to the White House unless you bow to neoliberalism, and that’s no less true of Trump than of Obama.

       Meyer’s article ends with a sobering observation. “The internet was supposed to bring about the a borderless, liberalized world. Its failure to do so—in fact, its contribution to the most perilously anti-liberal moment in decades—is terrifying. But it is petrifying to consider that liberalism must be at fault. So Facebook takes the heat.” Facebook is not your friend. But neither is Clinton, or Obama, or Trump. The age of Big Data is an age of disempowerment and alienation for all but the few neoliberal elites who truly run the Western world. The story here is not that Facebook helped Trump get elected. The real scandal is that the only “true story” recognized by our ruling class is one of algorithms, spreadsheets, and statistics. If you feel disempowered (and you should), realize that it is because the ideology that rules our world is one that has been steadily depersonalizing us for centuries.

      Sources: Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, The New Republic

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