Like Dr Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Mark Zuckerberg has created a monster he cannot control. The recent revelations of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files and testimony before US congress of product manager turned whistleblower Frances Haugen, appear to have removed any doubt regarding the extent of Facebook’s unwieldy problems, and the lack of willingness on behalf of its leadership to deal with them.
Zuckerberg is the largest shareholder, chief executive and president of Facebook. Yet the most recent revelations about the failures of his company suggest he has lost control of the product he created in a dorm room 17 years ago. Despite being a trillion-dollar company, whistleblowers and investigative journalists have exposed how Facebook is unable to prevent people being bought and sold as slaves on its platform, or prevent people from selling subplots of the Amazon rainforest to land speculators. Facebook’s executives have even been unable to stop the platform from being used to incite genocide, as it was in Myanmar in 2018.
But what is it about Facebook’s platform that makes it so monstrous? On the face of it its mission sounds innocuous. “Facebook was built to bring people closer together and build relationships,” Zuckerberg has written in a company mission statement. How could such a mission turn awry? Isn’t bringing people “closer together” an unalloyed good?
In theory, yes. But in reality, what Facebook and its algorithms do is catalyse sectarian divisions by bolstering in-group identity while promoting out-group hate. Nothing brings people “closer together” than hating a common enemy. And, importantly, this is not a process that impugns any particular side of the political spectrum. As each side is brought “closer together”, the further they pull away from each other. In the US context, social media propels the Black Lives Matter and transgender activist movements on the left and the Stop the Steal and anti-vaccination movements on the right. What these movements have in common is that they all rely on tribal solidarity animated by social grievance.
On the WSJ’s podcast, Frances Haugen describes some of the content Facebook knew was going viral on its platform in countries it knew were “at risk” of ethnic violence:
“It’s just horrific content. It’s severed heads. It’s horrible. One of the red flags for a society that is at risk for ethnic cleansing is you start comparing people to insects. This ethnic group is cockroaches because it dehumanises them so you can then kill them. Imagine you’re going to this meeting every other week and every single post is like that, and you’re talking about what allowed this post to go viral, what are the signals that were causing it to go viral? And you’re sitting there being like, ‘I am the civic misinformation PM (product manager), and I am seeing this misinformation and I feel no faith that I can do anything to address it’. Imagine living with that every day and having that just grind you down?”
Before Haugen left Facebook and turned whistleblower, senior-level data scientist Jeff Allen leaked an internal report on misinformation to the MIT Technology Review. Allen was concerned about the number of Facebook pages being operated by bad actors, describing the problem as “not normal, not healthy”.
The report Allen leaked (but did not author) revealed that 19 of the top 20 Facebook pages for Christian Americans were operated by troll farms in Eastern Europe. Similarly, 10 of the top 15 pages for African-Americans were also run by international troll farms. Allen’s report estimated that these troll accounts were reaching an estimated 140 million Americans, and 360 million people globally, including in Australia. In response to this report, Allen wrote: “Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church … Our platform has given the largest voice in the African-American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never had an interaction with an African-American.”
Few have come to Facebook’s defence in the past few weeks, but some sceptics of Haugen’s testimony have argued that her advocacy is simply a quest for “more censorship of conservative views”. But genuine conservative views should not be conflated with fake and malicious content, and right-wingers should be able to recognise that the spread of divisive conspiracy theories does not conserve civil society. True conservatism aims to maintain order and stability, not tear down civilisation in reactionary rage.
But reactionary rage seems to be winning the day. A recent survey of US voters conducted by the University for Virginia Centre for Politics found four out of 10, or 41 per cent of Biden voters, and half, or 52 per cent of Trump voters, agreed it’s “time to split the country”. In other words, a near majority dislike the “other side” so much they are in favour of secession. This is an alarming finding in a country awash with firearms.
While it would be unreasonable to argue that Facebook is solely responsible for growing partisan divides in the US or elsewhere, the platform certainly is not helping. Facebook profits from partisan anger, and profit is the platform’s raison d’etre.
For 200 years, Shelley’s Frankenstein has served as a warning against technological hubris. In bringing his creation to life, Dr Frankenstein’s failure is his lack of concern with the unintended consequences of his actions. Like the brilliant doctor of Shelley’s gothic novel, no one doubts Zuckerberg is a once-in-a-generation talent. He has created and led one of the most successful companies in the world – as a founder and CEO, “Zuck” is a legend.
But it is increasingly clear that Zuckerberg is too naive, too idealistic and simply too blind to understand the impact his platform is having on human society. Having awakened the monster of digitally enabled tribalism, Zuckerberg apparently still believes he can direct his creation to do his bidding. In reality, the monster has already broken free and is creating chaos and havoc wherever it roams.