Facebook is relentless

Not so long ago, Facebook was the most celebrated social platform in the world. In fact, the company could do no wrong in the eyes of its users, companies, politicians, and policymakers. Little is left of that good name and fame. Facebook is under fire, both in Europe and the US. Especially in Europe, policymakers are making every effort to limit the (economic) power of the company and, rather, to break it. Comparisons are not wrongly drawn with Theodore Roosevelt's struggle at the beginning of the 20th century with the great conglomerates (robber barons) of those days.

Facebook's scandal started in 2016 with the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica case. Facebook turned out to have sold the personal data of millions of users to this British agency. They then used the data to run the US presidential election campaign in favor of Donald Trump. The data was also used to influence the Brexit referendum.

Frances Haugen

Facebook apologized, paid a fine and promised to get better. Nothing came out of that, if we are to believe Frances Haugen. This former employee of Facebook's Integrity Department handed tens of thousands of documents to the Wall Street Journal, the SEC and the US Congress in the early fall of 2021. All of these documents show, according to Haugen, that the company systematically puts profit before public safety, even worse; that Mark Zuckerberg and his followers pose a threat to democracy inside and outside the US.

That wasn't the only thing that Haugen accused her former employer of. She pointed out that the platform was well aware that it was having a major impact on teens' mental health, not only for the better but certainly also for the worse. By spreading misinformation and by conspiracy theories that cannot or hardly be combated, Facebook sharpened the contradictions between nations. But it also deepened the political struggle between groups in countries where political balance and physical well-being were already shaky.

Photo: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen

Naturally, internal concern about this state of affairs grew and efforts were made to contain the worst excesses. In most cases, little came out of this. Within a large company like Facebook, there is always a battle between various bureaucracies. The complaint from former employees is that there was always pressure from above not to do too much damage to the business model.

Surveillance capitalism

According to insiders, it was often Mark Zuckerberg himself who intervened to crush initiatives for improvement. Because he still has a majority stake in his company, he imagines himself to be an autocrat who does not want to be held accountable, neither externally nor internally.

Zuckerberg is, therefore, considered the most prominent advocate of so-called surveillance capitalism, a concept developed by Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard University. For CEOs like Zuckerberg, it's all about maximizing shareholder value. In their view, the importance of profit and shareholder value justifies otherwise reprehensible actions. In Zuckerberg's case, this means that he takes it for granted that any data that comes his way – private or public – is his property. He can and may use or misuse them at his own discretion.

The economy of surveillance capitalism converts human behavior into data. Based on that data, a model of every human being is built that is in turn used to not only predict human behavior but also to influence that behavior. It is clear that advertisers love this type of model. It should also be clear that these manipulative models are a great danger to personal autonomy. For the surveillance capitalist, people and their attention and resources are no more than a commodity. It should also be clear that these manipulative means are a direct and great danger to democracy.

Decreasing popularity

Once upon a time, in the early days of Facebook, Zuckerberg ended the weekly meeting with the cry of DOMINANCE. You can call that whitewashing youthful enthusiasm. It probably was. But it also fits with the concept of surveillance capitalism: Just about anything is allowed to secure the position in the market and thus its profitability. However, the company's prospects are by no means convincing. Especially the young people have had it for years with Facebook. They don't like the platform anymore, it's not cool and they drop out in increasing numbers.

There is a fear that another 45% of young people could drop out in the next two years. Facebook has, of course, been aware of its flawed appeal for years. In 2012, it took over the photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion. The app met expectations for years and managed to attract large groups of young people. But Instagram seems to be past its prime, if we are to believe the experts. That's in part due to TikTok's overwhelming breakthrough during the pandemic.

In their search for an answer to the growing competition for Facebook and Instagram, management chose to build an Instagram for Kids for children under 13 years old. This decision was taken despite great internal resistance, pointing out all possible (negative) impacts on the mental state of the children. Those objections appear to have been rejected. Security has been defeated by growth and profitability. Even the youngest children is just a commodity for the surveillance capitalist.

Ignoring existing rules and choosing absolute self-interest are a constant in the history of the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg Facebook. More about this topic in the next Newsletter.


Sources:
Financial Times: the Big Read Facebook after the whistleblower: can Zuckerberg reboot the social network? October 27th, 2021
Fortune, Facebook kept investors in the dark as it fretted about an exodus of teens to Snapchat and TikTok October 25th, 2021
NBC News: Tech and media, A timeline of Facebook's privacy issues — and its responses. March 24th, 2018
Time: Facebook Will Not Fix Itself. What We Learned From the Facebook Whistleblower Hearing. October 7th, 2021