Matt Yglesias has a post at Vox today which I found enlightening, though not in the way I think he intended it to be. The topic is Facebook and the conclusion is simple: Facebook should be destroyed for the greater good. No, that’s not an exaggeration. Yglesias starts by noting that bad things happen in free markets:
Lots of companies, to be clear, are built around products that are bad. Indeed, being bad is by no means an impediment to success in a capitalist economy. Cigarette companies, for years, made enormous profits off selling a highly addictive highly carcinogenic substance to millions of Americans. Even in their current somewhat fallen state, tobacco companies continue to be viable ongoing enterprises.
Alcoholic beverages are enjoyed in moderation by many, but the real profit in the industry lies with the minority of serious alcohol abusers who account for the lion’s share of consumption — often with deadly consequences. Casino gambling features a similar, albeit less directly deadly, addiction-based business model.
None of which necessarily implies any specific public policy approach — legal prohibition of alcohol rather famously caused a lot of problems. But I do think it’s true that executives of companies that make money by hurting their customers should feel kind of bad about themselves. Or at least not good.
I’m glad to see that the lessons of prohibition being noted in passing, but the rest of the piece is really an argument for a kind of online prohibition, at least that’s where it’s heading when it comes to an abrupt end.
The immediate motive behind this story is the recent finding that Cambridge Analytics gathered data on Facebook in 2016. There’s no evidence that effort, which was similar (though smaller) to what the Obama campaign bragged about doing in 2012, changed the outcome of the election. In fact, Yglesias admits as much, so he moves on to other reasons to ditch the platform.
The sophisticates’ defense of Facebook is to question whether having half the country marinate in a cesspool of misinformation for an hour or two a day really swung any votes. And I suppose the answer may well be no.
But it certainly doesn’t help. And if you look at a society where Facebook plays a larger role in the information ecology, like Myanmar, you see a clear disaster emerging where United Nations human rights investigators say Facebook has been a clear dissemination channel for hate speech and propaganda that are driving an ethnic cleansing campaign that’s displaced more than 600,000 Rohingya people to Bangladesh and killed thousands.
The facts don’t seem to be in much doubt, i.e. Facebook has been used to say ugly things about the Muslim minority there. The violence against this population is obviously a real problem. So what’s the solution? According to Yglesias, it’s to get rid of Facebook entirely.
A couple of points here. First, isn’t it possible the same bad behavior could have taken place on other social media sites or even through email? Would getting rid of Facebook actually eradicate the problem of people being horrible or would it just shunt it to another, similar platform?
Second, Facebook has something like 2 billion active users around the world, about 40 times the entire population of Myanmar. And of course, not everyone in Myanmar is abusing the platform to target minorities. Do we really need to get rid of Facebook because a tiny percentage of the people using it are misusing it?
Perhaps sensing that this isn’t a terribly good argument, Yglesias ropes in a lot of other bad effects he can attribute to Facebook, from making people lonely to making them feel they’ve wasted their time using Facebook. Again, I won’t dispute any of that’s true. I also won’t dispute his conclusion that, in general, we’re probably better off if we spend more time with real people, doing exercise, getting outside, etc.
But there’s a relatively easy way to avoid these problems: Quit Facebook. Facebook is not an addictive product in the same way cigarettes are or even in the way gambling and alcohol are for some people. At this point we reach my favorite part of Yglesias’ argument in which he explains why that’s too hard to do:
I need to use Facebook to promote my work on Facebook. In an ideal world, I would have no activity on Facebook other than self-promotion via my Facebook brand page, but in order to do that, I have to have a Facebook account.
Since the account is there and since many other people use Facebook, that means I sometimes get messages on Facebook. And since I don’t want to systematically ignore people who are trying to get in touch with me, that makes me get sucked into use. And because almost everyone is on Facebook (even me!), people often send invitations to social engagements via Facebook, and to try to opt out is to make yourself a difficult person.
Besides which, when you do dip into Facebook, it’s a genuinely engaging compelling product — some of the brightest, hardest-working people in the world have toiled for years to keep you ensnared.
That last bit made me chuckle. It reminded me of this complaint from Homer Simpson about television:
Marge: We don’t think you’re slow. But on the other hand, it’s not like you go to museums, or read books or anything.
Homer: You think I don’t want to? It’s those TV networks, Marge, they won’t let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves! But they won’t! They won’t let me live!
Having ruled out the possibility of people taking responsibility for themselves to join or leave Facebook, there is only one option left: Shut down the whole thing for the greater good.
To be fair, Yglesias isn’t saying the government should make Facebook illegal only that Mark Zuckerberg should “shut it down, salt the earth, and move on to doing something entirely new.” Of course, if Zuckerberg shut down Facebook this Friday, there would be several substitutes trying to pick up his users by Monday. So, ultimately, the only way to stop this is going to be some kind of government prohibition. Again, Yglesias doesn’t say that, but only because he doesn’t follow the train of thought beyond the shuttering of Facebook itself.
At best this is an argument for a small elite to shut down social networks (for our own good) by pointing to a worst-case scenario like Myanmar. At base, I think this current phase of Facebook panic, which goes beyond this one Vox piece, isn’t coming from fear of impending violence but a realization that as these platforms continue they allow the unwashed masses to actually begin to say and do things, some of which the so-called elite may not like.
Social media has some real ugliness in it. Anonymity emboldens a lot of altruistic punishment that is sometimes enjoyable but rarely helpful. But the best solution is for individuals to limit their use, not for elites (or government) to limit it for them.