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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Can We Save Facebook?

Is social media irredeemable? Or is capitalism, once again, the real villain?

By the time you read this, there is sure to have been another Facebook scandal. New revelations of Facebook’s wrongdoing seem to hit the press with the regularity of Lena Dunham’s faux pas-and-apology cycles. What will it be this time? Perhaps the social network has been using its data to unscrupulously wheedle money out of elderly people for the last 10 years. Perhaps it has been secretly colluding with dodgy pet “shelters” to extract information from pet chips, using that data to target Facebook users with ads for equally dodgy pet food made out of the animals killed and ground up in the basements of said dodgy shelters. Perhaps it’s something even worse.

My hypotheticals may sound shockingly overblown, but Facebook’s own actions have given reason for cynicism. Consider that Facebook once ran an undisclosed experiment on users in order to test a theory about “emotional contagion.” (Does sad content make you sad? Why yes, said your five-year-old niece. Not sure we needed a study to prove that.) And, of course, Facebook infamously exposed the personal data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica, a conservative political consulting firm. The company has admitted that it tracks users’ locations even if they think they have opted out of location-tracking, and Facebook was fined a record $5 billion for its violations of user privacy rights. The company had so many scandals in 2018 alone that Wired ran a story called “The 21 (And Counting) Biggest Facebook Scandals of 2018.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s apologies for these infractions always end up sounding like bits out of Monty Python: Oh, gosh, yes, that’s a problem. Yes, we sort of knew we had a problem, and you’ve now found out it was a problem, and we’re so, so sorry that you found out about it. Which is to say, of course, we’re sorry there was a problem, but also that you found out about it. Can we fix it? Yes, of course, we can. Have we? Well, of course, we’re making every attempt to make sure we come up with an ideal solution. This has been a learning process for us all, and we thank you so very much for telling us you think this is a problem.

Facebook is becoming like the problematic cousin who found your Social Security number, embezzled your funds, and still keeps insisting that he didn’t mean it, really, he didn’t. (Then you find out that he’s been pulling the same shady shit all over town for years. And then you find out that there’s shit you didn’t even know of. In other countries.)

Nearly a third of the world’s population is on Facebook, with 2.41 billion subscribers worldwide (in contrast, Twitter has a mere 333 million users). India leads with 270 million, the U.S. second and Indonesia in third place. These vast numbers of users, all of whom can be targeted with personalized advertising and kept hooked with personally-tailored newsfeeds, are what keep Facebook profitable for Zuckerberg, today the eighth-richest man in the world (and possibly the most influential). Facebook also owns Instagram, Whatsapp, and Oculus VR. In effect, Facebook now controls a sizeable chunk of the platforms that allow people to share information and images of themselves. So much of what is transmitted into our minds flows through its channels. Of course, despite Facebook’s ubiquity, we may never actually know exactly how many people are actively using it for anything more than, say, keeping up on friends’ cats or grandchildren or posting popular memes of the day. But none of that matters in terms of the numbers, which keep the advertising revenue flowing.

Is social media worth it? In studying Facebook, is it possible to come to a verdict that’s neither Luddite nor completely celebratory? Facebook has managed to disrupt, in ways both good and bad, our sense of the world itself, seeming to diminish distances between people and events. It has contributed to the erosion of the formerly clear distinctions between the public and the private. And its illusion of worldwide comity erases the evidence of the massive digital gulf between entire populations of the world and even inside countries. In the U.S. alone, large numbers of people have severely restricted access to the internet based on factors like race and income.

Facebook’s history can be murky. It is a story that has been retold countless times, most famously in the movie The Social Network, but much of it will be bound up for eternity in Non Disclosure Agreements (all of which benefit Mark Zuckerberg). We know that it began as a college networking tool with insidious aims, namely ranking women on their beauty. From these humble misogynistic origins in the freshman dorms of Harvard sprang a vast network encircling the globe and seemingly infiltrating all aspects of our lives.

The ways the platform changes, so much and so rapidly, can cause concern and even panic. Every now and then, as after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, hordes of users will threaten to leave, disgusted at the corporation’s blatant, cavalier disregard for user privacy in favor of profits. But many will inevitably return. We are like mice that flounce off into the nearby woods, determined to make it to The Great Yonder, only to realize that there are more crumbs and a familiar warmth to be found back inside the house. Because say what you will—and we must say a lot—about the evils of Facebook, it has come to define the idea of a social network and changed human communication entirely. To declare it Evil Manifest and disconnect yourself entirely from it means cutting yourself off from others, and can be damaging to your professional life.

Facebook has made life easier in obvious ways. For instance, it provides a simple way to advertise events. It’s relatively easy to create an event page, dress it up with a snazzy image or two, and get the word out quickly to any number of people (how many of those who mark “attending” will actually show up is another question). It does also offer a way to read news items from sources we might not otherwise see, and has helped build audiences for alternatives to the mainstream press.

However, given that the content of your feed is determined by secret proprietary algorithms beyond your control, Facebook remains completely in charge of the content and can pull the plug on alternative outlets anytime it chooses. At one point, Mark Zuckerberg unilaterally announced that the network would be emphasizing pet photos over political news, in order to make people happier, a move that threatened to immediately damage the revenues of media outlets that depend on clicks from Facebook links. Nobody has any meaningful veto power over decisions like this. There is no other comparable social network to go to, no market competition. You either stay on Facebook and accept its terms, or you go off the grid.

In fact, journalists, writers, and some other professionals find that they have to maintain accounts in order to make connections with others in their fields. The very existence of Current Affairs depends in some ways on Facebook, and the company’s decisions about how to display content directly affect the success of this magazine. (If you are reading this article digitally, it might well be because it showed up in your feed, i.e., because Facebook decided to show it to you.)

It’s disturbing that Facebook’s financial incentives are determining what people see, because what’s good for Facebook might not always be good for journalism. Stories are often displayed—as they are now on many media sites themselves, including the New York Times—in order of “popularity.” But popular isn’t the same as important, and many excellently-researched and well-written pieces are banished to the digital Hades at the bottom of the page. It should be obvious that many of the pieces that need promoting are precisely the ones that don’t get clicked on, the ones that should keep popping up over and over until people give in and click rather than the ones they physically cannot keep themselves from reading (e.g., the ones with cats and Trump). The current formula is topsy-turvy: The articles that least need promotion receive the most of it. As a result, everyone ends up talking about the same few topics whose popularity has snowballed—or rather, everyone ends up talking about the fact that everyone is talking about how everyone is talking about the stories.

Facebook comes to shape the world of many professional writers. My own career would not exist without social media. As magazines and newspapers fold and devolve and vanish into the ether, it’s harder to maintain any kind of profile as a writer without a palpable social media presence. But a “profile” isn’t just a page you put up and leave. It must be maintained judiciously and tended with fresh Content (indeed, beginner writers are often advised on techniques for successful Tweeting and Facebooking). Of course, one must be careful: tweet and argue or “engage” with people all day long and you’ll end up with little work, and perhaps even spur a backlash or microscandal that forces you to drop out temporarily. But use social media in the (mysterious) Right Way, and you can build up recognition and a degree of readerly interest and loyalty—and often, attract editors who might ask you to write for them.

Is it all a rather cheap and tawdry way to make a living? The horror, the horror, of admitting that writing is a profession, not a calling! But only legacy publications like the New York Times still employ columnists like Friedman, Dowd, and Brooks who can effectively write the same article over and over and over again until the end of time (or of the Times). These hallowed sinecures (with their offices—they have actual offices!) are rare. Some writers are like high-end escorts who earn enough to live in penthouses and dine at the finest restaurants. Writers like me, on the other hand, are the $40 hustlers on social media’s alleyways, standing on the corner of Hype and Promise ceaselessly peddling our wares, poking our heads into the windows of every passing car: “Hey, honey, wanna see my Hot Take?” We make our living on the streets, and since Facebook is the new public square, that’s where you’ll find us plying our trade.

Art by Susannah Lohr.

Of course, it’s all supposed to be about “friendship.” One does not make Facebook acquaintances: There are Followers and there are Friends and there is nothing in between. Many grumpily complain that Facebook has rendered the word “friend” meaningless—on the platform it describes everyone from close relatives to people one met once at a party (or never met at all) and accepted only so as not to make unnecessary enemies.

But concepts like “friendship” are themselves hardly static and unchanging. There have been types of passionate same-sex friendship in previous ages that strike us oddly. Relationships like that between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed—passionate friends who exhibited physical and emotional ardor unbounded by the requirement of remaining “just” friends—lead some overly eager members of the LGBTQ community to claim them as gay and lesbian lovers, and it was not uncommon for same-sex friends to sleep together without being sexually involved. In an Atlantic article titled, “How Real Are Facebook Friendships?” Jacoba Urist points out that “relationship dynamics in the 21st century” have shifted enough that it is actually possible for us to maintain strong ties with a range of people we may not even meet at first, or even ever.

The paranoia about Facebook, too, might not be fully warranted. The force of Facebook’s newness, and the changes it has brought about, compels many who study it to imagine that all is death and doom, and that there is no escaping the void created by this ghastly new machinery of surveillance and snakery, against which we can form no resistance. But if we try to think about Facebook in productive ways, we should be willing to critique the critiques of Facebook. Certain kinds of anti-Facebook paranoia may be the product of an unfruitful elitist mindset, one common both on the right and among liberals.

Consider Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. The title itself indicates a belief in classic liberal principles: There is something that exists called “democracy,” a term that’s used throughout the book to indicate an untroubled (and untroubling) vision of a mass of people all working towards some commonly held goals. Facebook has served to “disconnect” us from each other and thus thwart the attainment of this Democracy with a capital “D.” Vaidhyanathan is critical of Facebook and its surveillant data mining but he also, bafflingly, insists that:

“…the very institutions we have carefully constructed and maintained to filter out nonsense and noise and to forge consensus of thought and action are withering. This has occurred over just a few decades, from that moment in the late twentieth century when it seemed the Enlightenment had finally prevailed and democracy, freedom, pluralism, and universal dignity just might have a chance to flower.”

This is a simplistic view, and one oddly at variance with our understanding of actual history. Our institutions have always produced nonsense and noise, not filtered them. And while they have indeed forged “consensus of thought,” the proper term for that is “manufacturing consent,” the pernicious way in which elite media institutions have molded public opinion to support often horrific state policies and the interests of rich capitalists. Facebook, thank our Cat Overlords, has provided a space where we can have more open discussions with one another.

Vaidhyanathan is generous to Facebook’s motives even as he is critical of its effects. He writes that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company” but to “accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.” And yet later, he writes, of the disastrous foray of Facebook into India, that “[Sheryl] Sandberg and Facebook certainly meant well. But they were dealing with a society they did not understand, and one in which many of its citizens do not mean each other well.” The fact that Facebook openly colluded with Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India who has been implicated in the genocide of Muslims, seems to bother him not one bit. Over and over, Vaidhyanathan nurtures the illusion that Facebook and its founders and chief officers like Sandberg really just meant well even as he dissects the deep surveillance strategies of the corporation. It’s a peculiarly schizophrenic approach to a capitalist entity: the idea that a corporation means well even as it wreaks havoc upon personkind.

The film Alien is about a dystopian world where Earth—practically ruled by the Weyland Corporation—mines the universe for ever more profits and where one of its marauding/exploring ships runs into a frightening new species with acid for blood. The creature is thus nearly invulnerable, because wounding it does far more damage to its enemies. It’s also a shapeshifter, lodging inside humans in its embryonic state and bursting out of them when ready. Its only function is to look for new hosts to carry it to new planets where it can reproduce until it has sucked all their resources from them, before moving on. At one point, the android Ash—planted by Weyland to bring the creature back to Earth for military research purposes—speaks admiringly of the creature as “the perfect organism.” He goes on, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

Capitalism is the Alien, obviously. Corporations follow the ruthless logic of maximizing profit and power to any end, however destructive. What Facebook destroys, it destroys because it is operated in the interests of its owners rather than its users, “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” But Siva Vaidhyanathan wants us to think about capitalism differently, as something that can be reformed, perhaps even given a heart. He writes about how “doing good” is what “inspired” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, ignoring Mackey’s ardent anti-union politics and his obvious desire to make lots of money.

It is not surprising that Vaidhyanathan is an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton and is wedded to the idea that she lost the election because of Russian interference—a theme that comes up a fair bit in the book—rather than conceding that she was a dreadful candidate who didn’t think she even needed to show up in places like Wisconsin to argue for her own candidacy. If we keep listening to people like Vaidhyanthan, we’re bound to be devoured by capitalism. (Unlike the Alien, however, it may not make its way off to another planet: It will languish and die here, taking us with it.)

Vaidhyanathan has become the critical voice on Facebook and social media, with a regular column in the Guardian and regular interviews and podcasts, though there are other, much better books on Facebook and the history of social media. These include Jacob Silverman’s Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection which, unlike Antisocial Media, has no illusions about the depth of Zuckerberg’s cynicism and profiteering—the book’s epigraph is Zuckerberg’s description of Facebook account-holders as “idiots” who give him their data. John Cheney-Lippold’s We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves is a deep, historically inflected examination of the very idea of the “algorithm” and how social media mines our data. Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet gives us, well, the secret military history of the internet, adding a layer of complexity to its origin stories. These authors, at the very least, hold a fundamental suspicion of the way capitalism uses social media.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Vaidhyanathan’s peculiar mix of cheerleading and funk about our loss of “Enlightenment values” gains so much more attention. But Vaidhyanathan is part of an intellectual tendency in media criticism that has long had currency. It’s telling that he claims the late New York University professor Neil Postman as a mentor and intellectual role model. Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, became a classic in a genre of media criticism that sees television as worthless and manipulative—and sees viewers and consumers of the same as dupes whose minds are empty vessels, ready to be filled with garbage assumptions and opinions as long as they are all presented vivaciously and entertainingly. Postman may not be much cited these days, but this type of media analysis defines the liberal response to, say, Fox News, in which a direct line is drawn from the mouth-foaming conservatism seen on the channel and the vituperative politics of exclusion and hatred among those identified as Trump voters.

The paranoid view of media, technology, and pop culture can also be seen in, for instance, Tipper Gore’s ultimately successful even if highly ridiculed campaign to slap “Parental Advisory” stickers on audio recordings deemed offensive. Postman’s view influenced approaches towards video games and resulted in the long-lasting and deeply damaging view that watching violence creates violent behaviour. Little to no attention is paid to the several cultural and political reasons that lead to an increase in violence, and—as might be expected—Tipper Gore’s campaign was not very subtly racialized: The music most often targeted as unsuitable has inevitably been genres like rap and hip hop.

What Postman contributed is an immensely influential idea that popular culture is an inherently debased and debasing form of production. That ideological slant has crossed over to the realm of scholarship that looks at social media. It’s a schizophrenic idea that pays no heed to the many contradictory ways in which we consume and use social media (After all, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s columns in the Guardian are mostly shared online through social media.) The Postmanesque view of social media and culture requires us to believe that consumers are dupes whose very emotions can be manipulated easily to evil ends (recall Facebook’s interest in “emotional contagion”), and that perhaps we ought to all spend more time reading books in print and only watch films by Jean-Luc Godard and Satyajit Ray.

As Silverman, Cheney-Lippold, and Levine, and others point out, we do have reason to be paranoid. Our information is being stored and used in ways that are perplexing and arcane, potentially allowing financial predators to access and control our most intimate lives. But social media is here, and it’s here to stay. Even if, say, Twitter, disappears tomorrow, something else is bound to replace it (Facebook, often mocked as a venue for the aging, is doing fine in a world where people actually do age and end up wanting more than conversations in less than 140 characters with anonymous eggs). What do we do with social media and our paranoia?

Paranoia is a built-in feature of the state, as is our understanding that we are always being infiltrated or being preyed upon from the inside. But paranoia need not be a destabilizing fear that freezes our work and sends us packing like Luddites, obsessed with the latest conspiracy theories. Instead, it can simply mean that we keep interrogating the state and the nature of our social institutions. If we give in to paranoia, we forget that the goal is not simply to avoid the machinery by going “off the grid” or “underground” or using tools like Signal as go-arounds. Our end goal is to destroy the machine itself.

How might social media bring about that end? How might paranoia play a role in activism and organizing and in creating a better world? Civil rights activists marched knowing full well they were being surveilled and, worse, that they would more likely than not be brutalized and killed by police. The same has been true of all revolutionary movements, whether in India or South Africa or Algeria. In 1999, protesters of the World Trade Organization shut down the city of Seattle and smashed the windows of Starbucks, faced by cops whose body armor and riot gear were so insidious that they effectively became worldwide images of state repression.

Let us visit a night in New York City in 1972, when thousands gathered to support a Black radical socialist feminist who had been declared an enemy of the state. She stood on the stage and exhorted the audience to rise up and bring about a socialist America. She was behind a four-sided panel of bulletproof glass as she spoke, because she and her supporters knew fully well that she was under threat of assassination from the state and white supremacists.

The woman was Angela Davis and the evening part of a campaign simply titled “Free Angela.” Millions across the world, in countries far and wide, responded, at a time when social media was not even imagined as a possibility, when people had to pick up actual telephones connected to wires in the ground and send telegraphs to get movements going. What sparked such deep and profound support for Davis was not the desire to be part of a cool movement but a long series of historical connections made over several decades, long before Davis was even born.

Is it possible to create such an event of such momentous importance today? The fact that protesters around the world use social media to spread the news and update each other on safety and strategies does not mean that Twitter or Facebook or Whatsapp are singular causes of revolution: Twitter once shamelessly took credit for the “Arab Spring”—a view that has since been mocked out of existence. Social media is a tool, and it is admittedly a tool that also opens its users to the most cynical and often dangerous forms of data mining, as Cheney-Lippold amply documents. But it’s here to stay, and paranoia and contempt about and for it get us nowhere.

The paranoia that rules much of what constitutes a critique of Facebook is unproductive because it is so rarely tied to an actual demolition of capitalism itself, which is why so many of the popular figures who criticize surveillance and social media are not anti-capitalists or anti-authoritarians. How might we recover social media so that it serves our ends and not its own? For starters, we can have a healthy cynicism about it without holding them in contempt. We might then devise ways to wrest control of social media and turn its platforms into public entities. Consider the public library: Seeded by millionaire philanthropists like Carnegie Mellon, these institutions did not even begin as free public libraries. Today, when run well—like the new and spectacular one in Helsinki—a public library becomes the social and cultural hub of a community: It becomes the place where revolutions take root and spring forth. If Facebook were cured of its rapacious ways—if we extracted the Alien from within the host body and threw it back out into space—it might still become something useful to us, instead of something that uses us.

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