The Facebook Crisis Is Bigger Than Fact-Checking

Civilization is gliding across the fiery river between the vapidly tangible present and the ever-impossible future, and the great dystopian novelists of the twentieth century would be pleased to learn that their work can no longer be called predictive but instead must be read as post-hoc descriptive literature.  The centrist commentariat seems incapable of conceiving of any metaphor that doesn’t involve gross misreadings of George Orwell (or, less frequently, Aldous Huxley).  Margaret Atwood’s nightmarish vision is the center of both a vastly profitable Hulu franchise and a mainstream protest movement.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 offers just as heavy-handed a political cudgel as it did fifty years ago.  But the better, weirder end times of Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Phillip K. Dick go beyond the clumsy paranoiac fantasies of the powerful and suddenly insecure – they remind us how the daily apocalypses of our way of life unfold beyond our field of perception, and are all the more dangerous for it.

Take Phillip K. Dick’s 1965 work, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, set sometime in the twenty-first century.  Dick describes an Earth devastated by global warming, whose occupants have been forced into exile in miserably dull and desolate colonies on Mars and other planets. To find pleasure in their dejection, the colonists rely on the psychotropic drug Can-D to survive by escaping into elaborate fantasy worlds; the illegal drug is sold secretly along with accessorized “Perky Pat” dolls to augment the fantasy by Leo Bulero, a corporate sleaze.  But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that even Bulero is unsure where the to find the lines between hallucination and reality when the cyborg adventurer, Palmer Eldritch, reveals a more powerful drug, Chew-Z, made from living alien lichens.  As Bulero strives to murder Eldritch, it slowly becomes clear that the cyborg has been possessed by some being with god-like powers, exerting its control across the universe through the addictive substance (which Barney, the book’s protagonist, comes to call “God”), and Dick sculpts nearly every scene with a precise ambiguity – as the very fabric of reality begins to subtly fragment, it is never entirely clear what (if anything) exists outside of the alien-induced Chew-Z visions.  Unlike the simulacra in The Matrix, The Truman Show, or Plato’s allegory of the cave, the artificial reality that unfolds in Dick’s Three Stigmata is not forced upon its subjects without their consent.  The inescapable boredom of life after the end of the world leads the book’s characters to choose a fiction controlled first by an extractive corporation and then by omnipotent aliens specifically to avoid the realization, as Barney puts it, that “the weight of empty time hung over them all.” [1]

This, precisely, is the crisis of Facebook.  Life in capitalism’s end stages is so tedious, so alienating, so exhausting, and so asinine that a third of the world’s human beings have willfully chosen one of the various platforms offered by Facebook to satiate their desire for meaning with an endless series of blue-lit dopamine hits.  While its users enjoy the free social network Facebook provides, the company has raked in hundreds of billions of dollars in just over a decade by collecting metadata on their behavior and selling that data to the highest bidder.  Facebook tailors nuanced advertising platforms to the desires of each of their 2.7 billion users while simultaneously controlling their flow of information through capital-infused algorithms; almost anything we know, not just about the social behavior of our so-called “Friends” but about the world at large, has already been squeezed through the website’s interface which is designed to maximize our own addictive response.  Because of the platforms hypercomplexity and scale, its project has moved beyond the sphere of human intervention – the same algorithms that identify our individual desires for commercial exploitation also inevitably begin to shape those desires, and the same algorithms that seek to maximize our interactions with a website now also moderate our interactions with human beings along the same automated logic.  James Bridle writes,

Facebook set out to map the connections between people – the social graph – and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships.  Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between its model of the world and reality – and, once conditioned, neither are we.[2]

What began as a plaything for Harvard chauvinists has spiraled first into a tool that invents profit more rapidly than any other in human history, then into a literal manifestation of what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari termed the “desiring-machine” (how crucial, then, to recall their warning in 1972’s Anti-Oedipus: “there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors”[3]).  Along with Amazon and Google, Facebook has entirely reshaped the economy into a system in which the most successful players do not buy labor and sell products; they deal entirely in the predictive value of behavioral and psychological data.  Marx’s famous description of capital as “dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”[4] must be modernized for the ghouls of the present; Shoshana Zuboff writes that our new “surveillance capitalism…revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with a new twist. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of a human’s experience.”[5]  Google CEO Eric Schmidt refers to their business model more loftily as “augmented humanity,” crowing in a 2010 Keynote, “We’ll suggest what you should be watching, because we know what you care about…We can suggest what you should do next, what you care about.  Imagine: we know where you are, we know what you like.”[6]  But Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg is more straightforward, at least in leaked instant messages – he once said of Facebook’s first customers, “i don’t know why they ‘trust me’ dumb fucks.”[7]

It is beside the point to wonder whether American society will eventually deteriorate into a zone of inescapable high-tech-juridico-commercial policing like in Minority Report (to take another example from Dick) or in the Chinese province Xinjiang, where financial credit scores are determined by day-to-day behavior monitored through the social media giant Alibaba’s facial recognition software.[8]  The crisis we now face, in large part due to Facebook’s opportunism, is one of our very humanity.  To what extent can society even exist when the actions (and even desire to act) of its subjects are produced to an unknowable degree by programs beyond their control?  What does it say about a society that the overwhelming majority of its subjects would choose such shadowy subjugation?  The novel or horror movie that is dark enough to encompass our current moment has not yet been written.

So it should have been a relief this week when Zuckerberg bowed to at least some semblance of democratic oversight and agreed to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on his newest venture – the development of a cryptocurrency, Libra, which would be controlled by a tiny number of billionaires and openly compete with the US dollar.  Libra is such an obviously destructive and unlawful idea it scarcely merits discussion (which is not to say it will not come to pass), so, fortunately, the Committee spent far more time focusing on popular discontent with Facebook and its outsize role in the destruction of American politics and culture.  It was also promising that Zuckerberg would be speaking before the Financial Services Committee in particular, since the Committee includes Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Katie Porter, all of whom won their seats with a courageous rejection of corporate political donations and all of whom have consistently advocated for democratizing politics against the bipartisan grip of mega-corporations, including Facebook itself.

So I was disappointed (if not entirely surprised) that even avowed socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib stopped short of any true structural critique or structural response to surveillance capitalism and instead concerned themselves with the existentially liberal concern with, of all things, “political speech.”  True, watching Zuckerberg squirm in his inquisition as he repetitively proved how little he has considered the greater implications and consequences of his actions was nothing short of glorious.  Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Porter, as well as Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, all ran circles around the frustrated billionaire.  But to what end?

In a now viral exchange, Ocasio-Cortez grilled Zuckerberg on his knowledge of Steve Bannon’s consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which used Facebook meta-data to target potential voters in specific demographics on behalf of right-wing causes including Brexit and the Trump presidential campaign.  This is an immense scandal which should make the essential point about Facebook’s position to manufacture desire on a political level exquisitely clear.  Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, revealed explicitly that “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles.  And built models to exploit what we knew about them and their inner demons.  That was the basis our entire company was built on.”[9]  Cambridge Analytica proves conclusively that Facebook’s dictatorship by algorithm not only makes people vulnerable to political manipulation, it reduces democracy itself to a simple byproduct of coordinated data points.  But rather than probe that, Ocasio-Cortez chose to instead highlight the fact that some of the ads used by Cambridge Analytica contained misinformation, and the fact that Zuckerberg recently announced Facebook would allow politicians or political parties to make posts containing “deceptive, false, or misleading content.”[10]

Glaring at Zuckerberg with tangible contempt, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez asked him, “Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here.”  It was a great moment, a clever line wonderfully delivered.  Zuckerberg sank into a stuttering mess, reminding the world that just fifteen years ago, the CEO worth $69 billion was a college kid conquering his fear of women with a dorm room website called Facemash designed to deem his female classmates “hot or not.”[11]  But beyond the satisfying optics of a particular moment, Ocasio-Cortez was voicing a widespread concern on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that Facebook should work harder to curb the widespread misinformation spread by the far-right on its platform.  This concern has in recent weeks become a central tenant of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, and Ocasio-Cortez was to a certain extent echoing Warren’s recent Facebook ad campaign, full of snarky messages like this one:

Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.  You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, “how could this possible be true?”  Well it’s not.  (Sorry.)  But what Zuckerberg has done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform – and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.

But those on the left have more to fear from the increasing power of Facebook’s fact-checkers than anyone.  Warren and Ocasio-Cortez are right to voice concern with the fact that Zuckerberg changed his website’s policy to allow political lies after a closed-door meeting with Donald Trump, who clearly has a vested interest in being allowed to lie whenever he wants.  However, they neglect to mention the fact that Facebook in fact does employ one of the internet’s most widely-used fact-checking organizations.  The Third Party Fact-Checking Project includes fifty organizations around the world and, in Zuckerberg’s words, “across the spectrum” of politics – including Snopes, PolitiFact, and the Associated Press, as well as Tucker Carlson’s white nationalist website, the Daily Caller, but, conspicuously, no major left-wing outlets.  Articles, posts, and even political advertisements Facebook reviews and deems dishonest are in fact flagged for users’ attention.  The problem, as is the case in any appeal to objective neutrality, is neutrality for whom.  Facebook has used its fact-checking to block TeleSur, the news network jointly operated by the Venezuelan, Cuban, Nicaraguan, Bolivian, and Uruguayan governments, but not similarly partisan government news sources such as Al Jazeera and the BBC.[12]  Facebook fact-checkers also failed to prevent false reports of rape by Rohingya Muslims from spreading across Myanmar in 2017 – the outrage sparked by these reports led the country’s Buddhist majority to slaughter and rape tens of thousands of Rohingya in one of the twenty-first century’s most brutal genocides, which the UN Human Rights Council claims was specifically instigated by Facebook groups.[13]  Former Snopes reporter Brooke Binkowski claims she left her organization over their ties with Facebook, and that “I was bringing up Myanmar over and over and over.”[14]  Recall also that Facebook did exercise its right to censor against Elizabeth Warren herself as recently as March – when Warren posted ads calling for Facebook and other tech giants to be broken up as part of antitrust legislation, those ads mysteriously vanished from Facebook’s platform.[15]

The fact checkers of power are also inherently the fact checkers for power.  Zuckerberg’s grand claims to be protecting “freedom of expression” are of course bullshit; there is no such thing and even if there were, he would hate it.  But that does not mean the left should be encouraging the corporate government of Facebook to exercise even more discretion over the information his platform filters.  As a corporation, Facebook has interests, as does Snopes, PolitiFact, the Daily Caller, or the Washington Post (which is owned by Zuckerberg’s comrade Jeff Bezos).  Would the left prefer it if Facebook had some mechanism like the Post’s Glenn Kessler?  Kessler, an heir of the Shell oil fortune, masquerades as the fact of impartiality to the American center (who consider themselves apolitical) – all the while making wildly subjective political claims.  See, for example, his take on Bernie Sanders saying “three people in this country have more wealth than the bottom half of America” – because “the bottom half have essentially no wealth,” Kessler says this claim “not especially meaningful.”[16]  Fake news is as old as news; spreading lies is certainly not something Facebook started, nor is Facebook uniquely dishonest.  It would actually be impossible for Facebook to have apolitical fact-checkers, truth is political.  Every body that presents information does so in accordance with its own structure, and any information presented by a body like Facebook will therefore be deeply problematic, to say the least – fact-checked or not.

The problem is not the accuracy of the information Facebook presents its users, but the hegemony Facebook enjoys over the presentation and consumption of information in general.  Accuracy aside, this hegemony is always extracting, always manipulating.  Zuboff writes that the information promised by internet mega-corporations traps users into a division of learning that represents “unprecedented asymmetries of knowledge and power” through “the problem of two texts.”  The first text is public facing – a Google Search, a Facebook newsfeed, the seemingly unbridled world that offers us endless knowledge in exchange for our mere interaction.  But the first text “actually functions as the supply operation for the second text: the shadow text.  Everything that we contriute to the first text, no matter how trivial or fleeting, becomes a target for surplus extraction.”  With every click we make, while we take in date, we can not help but contribute to “a burgeoning accumulation of behavioral surprlus and its analyses, and it says more about us than we can know about ourselves.”  While the full practical connotations of this information extraction are impossible to know (probably even by Facebook’s human masters), it should be sufficient to observe that

Google’s algorithms, derived from surplus, select and order search results, and Facebook’s algorithms, derived from surplus, select and order the content of its News Feed.  In both cases, researchers have shown that these manipulations reflect each corporation’s commercial objectives…[The public-facing text] is created, maintained, and exploited outside our awareness for others’ benefit.  The result is that the division of learning is both the ascendant principle of social ordering in our information civilization and already a hostage to surveillance capitalism’s privileged position as the dominant composer, owner, and guardian of the texts.[17]

It is, quite simply, impossible to know where Facebook’s power over information begins and ends – not because facts are or are not “checked,” but because access to information is designated by secret and tightly-protected algorithms with their own agendas.  While we will never fully understand the boundaries of their control, we do know that with every single use by every single user, Facebook’s automated mastery of information only grows, and will continue to grow – again from Zuboff, “when it comes to the shadow text, surveillance capitalism’s laws of motion compel both its secrecy and its continuous growth.”  This puts us in the position of Philip K. Dick’s hallucinogen-munching space colonists – we understand that we turn to Facebook (or Google, or Amazon, or whatever else) to escape the material world, but the imaginary world we step into is far more expansive and fictitious than we can possibly predict, and by its existence defies our capacity to set parameters on what is real, what is known.  As social media algorithms become a behemoth of exerting unknowable control on the dominant modes not just of information but of communication and socialization, what array of morbid symptoms could appear?  Three decades of constant acceleration have passed since Frederick Jameson called postmodernism (with its “breakdown of the signifying chain”) the “cultural logic of late capitalism.”[18]  The cultural and societal impact of a constant consciousness constantly policed and mediated by profiteering computer programs would be too bleak to contemplate, if it could even be contemplated at all in the weak language of our mere humanity.

What is to be done?  Senators Warren and Sanders have both proposed breaking up Facebook into an array of smaller competing companies through antitrust laws in the style of Theodore Roosevelt, but they were met at the last primary debate with an uncharacteristically good point from the self-proclaimed “internet candidate,” Andrew Yang.  “Competition doesn’t solve all of the problems.  It’s not like any of us wants to use the fourth best navigation app, that would be like cruel and unusual punishment.  There’s a reason why no one is using Bing today.”  Yang’s intention of course was to defend the status quo ante of big-tech plutocracy, but his argument stands for itself – Facebook is only useful to consumers as long as everybody (or effectively everybody) uses it, the service it provides would be entirely unprofitable unless it collected surveillance on every potential user; without an effective and intrusive monopoly, Facebook would be both useless and worthless.  Yang here finds himself unintentionally stumbling upon the thesis of Leigh Phillips and and Michael Rozworski’s surprising and fantastic recent book, The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart: that the free market fails on its own terms, that capitalism’s tendency toward monopoly ultimately turns successful companies into Soviet-style central planning organizations, and that such central planning allows them to better meet consumer demand.  People in the United States and around the world have spoken – they want the service that Facebook provides and are willing to live with the consequences.  If the populist left squanders our hard-won political spotlight on dismantling one of the most-used websites in the world into a series of smaller websites that work less well, it will mean political suicide.

There is an alternative to pro-competition antitrust, as Phillips and Rozworski allude with a provocative question – “Could a major goods distributor like Amazon or a social network like Facebook be built as an international nonprofit cooperative?” [19]  What if a (truly democratized) American state, rather than trying to break Facebook apart into unusable chunks, instead moved to take over Facebook as a public utility?  Liberated from the profit imperative, Facebook would have no incentive to collect metadata on consumer desire or manipulate interaction with advertisers.  Algorithms could be recoded not by financiers but by democratically selected cyber-ethicists, with the primary aim of preserving human agency in the cyborg epoch.  Facebook’s value in entertainment, education, and friendship could be preserved even as the vampires behind it are slain.  Nationalizing industry is something the United States capitalist class is uniquely good at fighting, and many critics suggest that the government simply could not take control of the world’s wealthiest corporations – implying that Zuckerberg is more powerful than the US government, which he well may be.  But it is critical to remember that breaking up Facebook through antitrust would destroy the corporation’s profits just as certainly as seizing the company; when Zuckerberg heard of Warren’s antitrust plan, he told his employees, “If someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”[20]  Zuckerberg has as much to lose from antitrust as he has to lose from nationalization, and he will fight both with equal venom – but only through nationalization can we ensure long-term democratic protections within a technology that stands between us and reality itself.

Is nationalization a perfect solution?  Of course not – the mere presence of social media is transforming our society in ways we can not yet fathom, and most of them are certainly bad.  Ultimately the impulse driving Facebook’s historic success is not any brilliant business plan or advertising coup, but a simple escapism.  Life under capitalism is bad enough that people will sacrifice anything for an out.  Our task, then, is to establish a world that encourages the delight and engagement of its multitudes, a society (both human and non-human) that fosters the absolute freedom which is the prerequisite for true joy.  But in the meantime, the insurgency of surveillance capitalism poses an emergency threat which we can only see the very edges of.  Because “Luddites of the world, unite and cut every internet cable!” lacks the kind of democratic ring we need for our movement, we must settle in the short term for nationalizing Facebook and its ilk – but we can not dare settle for less, even if our best politicians have!

[1] Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (New York: Mariner Books, 2011), 135.

[2] James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (New York: Verso, 2018), 40.

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 116.  It is somewhat astounding how closely Deleuze and Guattari predicted Facebook’s business model with their description of a desiring machine as one that handles “at once the production of production, the production of recording, and the production of consumption.  To withdraw a part from the whole, to detach, to ‘have something left over,’ is to produce, and to carry out the real operations of desire in the material world,” 41.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 342.

[5] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2019), 9.

[6] Eric Schmidt, “Eric Schmidt speaks at IFA,” YouTube video, 1:08:52, posted by “Google,” September 8, 2010.

[7] Quoted in Jose Antonio Vargas, “The Face Of Facebook: Zuckerberg Opens Up,” The New Yorker, September 13, 2010.

[8] See the reporting of Simina Mistreanu, “Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory,” Foreign Policy, April 3, 2018.

[9] Quoted in Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach,” Guardian, March 17, 2018.

[10] Quoted in Alex Hern, “Facebook exempts political ads from ban on making false claims,” Guardian, October 4, 2019.

[11] In case you’d forgotten, see Rhett Jones, “Helpful Congressman to Zuckerberg: Hey, remember Facemash?” Gizmodo, April 11, 2018.

[12] Sam Biddle, “Facebook Suspended a Latin American News Network and Gave Three Different Reasons Why,” Intercept, August 20, 2018.

[13] Human Rights Council, “Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar,” United Nations, 28 September 2018, 7.

[14] Quoted in Sam Levin, “‘They don’t care’: Facebook factchecking in disarray as journalists push to cut ties,” Guardian, December 13, 2018.

[15] Cristiano Lima, “Facebook backtracks after removing Warren ads calling for Facebook breakup,” Politico, March 11, 2019.

[16] Glenn Kessler, “Sanders on concentration of wealth,” Washington Post, June 27, 2019.  Seriously?

[17] Zuboff, 186-187.

[18] See Frederick Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review I/146 (1984): 53-92.

[19] Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski, The People’s Republic of Wal-Mart (Verso: 2019), 99.

[20] Quoted in Casey Newton, “All Hands On Deck: In two hours of leaked audio, Mark Zuckerberg rallies Facebook employees against critics, competitors, and the US government,” The Verge, October 1, 2019.

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