While the mainstream press has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, digital media appears to be stuck in a Wild West phase. It seems that Facebook is constantly running into trouble, from reports of data being mined without our consent to moral panics about foreign agents hacking Western democracy and hate crime caused by fake news. Yet as the world’s largest social media platform faces a series of crises, the opportunity has opened up to discuss its regulation.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a bold move onto this terrain on August 23 in a major intervention in which he announced “a series of radical ideas to build a free and democratic media for the digital age.” In a speech in Edinburgh, he outlined his vision of democratizing both the publicly owned BBC and commercial journalism. He called for taxes on tech giants and internet service providers in order to help level the playing field between the digital monopolists and public-service media.
This call for media reform was a paradigm shift — particularly at a time when the power of firms like Facebook draws rising skepticism. Today privacy violations, the panic over Russian troll farms, and concern over social media’s impact on mental health have all dented public trust in Facebook, and indeed its previously spectacular share price growth. And if in 2010 the film The Social Network cast Zuckerberg as a flawed yet forgivable genius, his recent congressional hearing was met by memes portraying him as a grasping tycoon with a robot smile.
For years governments have seemed scared of challenging the tech giants, refusing either to tax or regulate the new platforms which presented themselves in a near-magical aura. But Corbyn’s speech represents a breakthrough in the public debate on new media. Once apparently the domain of free-spirited libertarians, Silicon Valley is fast becoming a chief concern for states and governments. As social media monopolies are increasingly politicized, other proposals like introducing democratic oversight over the biggest platforms can offer a way to take control over sites that have become public utilities in all but name.
The Internet Ideology
If Britain’s Labour Party and others are finally breaking with the glorification of Silicon Valley’s libertarian ideals, it is also worth asking why this did not happen sooner. Facebook’s promise for dissenting voices has long been its capacity to bypass traditional media. Social media is, seemingly, a gift for whoever wants to challenge the establishment bias of traditional outlets. From the Left’s perspective, it has been credited with an important role in the rise of both Corbyn in the UK and democratic socialists in the US, able to break through the veil of media silence, or attacks. Yet this has, in its own way, also fed the myth that the Internet is a non-hierarchical, decentralized space; an idea which the digital monopolists frequently hide behind.
The mystique of the new tech giants allows them to skirt around the regulation governing traditional press. A founding myth of the Internet depicts a world in which start-ups grow out of dorm rooms and garages to become global platforms, advancing the creativity and connectivity of humanity. The ideological force driving this narrative is the idea that freedom of expression online is sacred — a principle enshrined in US law. But this also means that social media is not regulated like other media. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ensures that providers of an “interactive computer service” will not be treated as the publisher of content held by the service. Zuckerberg invoked this very point in July when he eschewed Facebook’s responsibility for controlling posts on the platform that denied the Holocaust.
Nonetheless, recent controversies have suggested that Facebook is anything but “neutral.” In a bid to combat so-called “fake news,” Facebook hasproudly taken a lead from US intelligence agencies in removing “inauthentic” pages, groups, and accounts. Yet in a context where less than a handful of private businesses dominate social media, Facebook can take decisions that shape the world’s biggest public sphere, with zero democratic oversight. Banning a far-right conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones may draw cries of “good riddance.” But banning the Latin American network TeleSUR, pro-Palestinian pages, and pro-Kurdish content gives a new and yet familiar imperialist slant to Facebook’s pronounced humanitarian and democratizing ideals.
At the same time, recent changes to Facebook’s newsfeed — reducing content considered to be passive, rather than interactive, in a bid to sustain use of the platform — has troubled activists who have come to depend on Facebook for publishing alternative views. These changes have underscored the site’s other monopolizing practices, such as forcing mobile users to reach content outside of Facebook via an internal browser; the browser is so slow that users frequently turn back, the better to interact on the platform itself.
A Monopoly Interest
It is, then, increasingly clear that Facebook is far from a neutral space in which users’ timelines are organically shaped by their networked interactions. Facebook is a publisher; it’s just a giant monopolistic one, driven at base by market incentives. As Zeynep Tufekci puts it, at its core, the tech giant’s “business is mundane: They’re ad brokers.” Indeed, as liberals focus the debate on user privacy and data harvesting they obscure the capitalist logics driving these practices, and what the alternatives might look like when data and global connectivity are free from private control.
It is spurious to respond to legitimate criticisms of Facebook by saying we can simply opt out if we don’t like it, or, like the Adam Smith Institute claims, that what Corbyn is saying amounts to a call to waste public money on building a “knockoff” alternative. Precisely Facebook’s biggest strength (also for users) is its critical mass; we use it because “everyone” is there and because we don’t want to — and in some cases, can’t afford to – “miss out.” Facebook functions as a public utility by sharing a mass of information and connecting as many users as possible. Its critical mass makes it a natural monopoly and that alone is bound to undermine users’ freedom of choice. But far from it thereby simply serving a public interest, it is governed by a business model centered on advertising, decisive to everything we see and do on the platform. This incentive drives the addictive logic behind the algorithms which determine whether you see more kitten pratfalls, a meme about Palestine, or a post from an old friend.
Despite Silicon Valley’s humanist pretentions, fundamentally Facebook is about getting as many people using the platform as often as possible. The longer you stay, the more ads Facebook can deliver. The more Facebook can collect data on your interactions, the more targeted, and thus valuable, those ads can be. If an already saturated Western market and the costs of self-regulation (assumed to be better than overbearing, and slow, state enforcement) might affect Facebook’s share price, it remains true that every single active user in the US and Canada was worth $97 to Facebook over the last year, or $23 in Europe. If you didn’t already know, for tech giants like Facebook you are the product — and that’s how much you’re worth.
Just like a traditional publisher, Facebook is clearly shaping what its 2.2 billion active users see. But instead of paying to produce content, Facebook gets it free from its users and other publishers. And instead of real editors, it depends an army of algorithms that are fine-tuned to keep you hooked.
A Socialist Social Media
Facebook falls far short of realizing the Internet’s true potential. Its capacity for global connectivity and the power of big data — which could be used for advancing human progress in infinite ways — is mobilized for one simple purpose: profit.
But what’s the alternative? Well, Corbyn’s proposals centered on redistributing profits from the tech giants and towards public-service media are a bold start. His vision of a British Digital Corporation is wedded to the UK’s paternalist tradition of social democracy, where “independent” journalism is thought to be a public good. But Corbyn’s speech also went a little further than this, suggesting an alternative that “could develop new technology for online decision-making and audience-led commissioning of programs and even a public social media platform with real privacy and public control over the data that is making Facebook and others so rich.”
Like the BBC itself, a social-democratic alternative to Facebook will face challenges. Facebook has enormous political influence and an industrious capacity to avoid tax. Determining what market Facebook operates in and providing a definition of what a digital monopoly actually is, present big legal challenges to taxation. Moreover, when the logic of capitalist competition is applied to media, public alternatives will struggle in an aggressive market for popular attention. Alternatives to Facebook already exist, but none have achieved the critical mass to make them viable. Even if Zuckerberg’s monopoly is broken up, the capitalist incentives driving the media environment could sustain Facebook, or platforms like it, indefinitely by constantly revolutionizing the means of addiction. It seems that without tackling these incentives head-on, the effect could be to create a tiered internet, with a healthier public sphere for some while leaving the most vulnerable to suffer the most pernicious effects of an online obsession.
Going further than Corbyn’s own proposals, for some the answer is to nationalize Facebook. Yet the resources of a tech giant — mainly data and active users — are not like a coal mine fixed in some specific territory; they are transferable. That’s why liberating the ideal of online connectivity and the power of big data demands that we kill off Facebook’s business model and ensure it is replaced by something better. To that end, we can suggest another policy that would instantly undermine the commodification wrought by the giant platforms, and level the playing field for alternatives: to ban online advertising, whether commercial or political.
Such a policy of seems a long way off, for now. Yet as with any reform that reclaims human activity from the control of markets, it raises a timeless political question — in this case, who controls access to information. By banning advertising, Facebook’s business model would cease to exist. Out of the picture, the media giant could be replaced by a publicly funded platform. Yet what would replace the capitalist incentives that drive Facebook’s addictive algorithms? Would users be allowed to see nipples before 9 PM (they aren’t on the BBC), or would Peppa Pig face an outright ban as in China? And how could this happen on a national scale without an enormous, and likely both unpopular and unenforceable, national firewall?
Jeremy Corbyn’s Edinburgh speech provides some of the answers. A Facebook after capitalism could combine an open-sourced approach with democratic oversight. Like Wikipedia, networked technology can allow an alternative platform to be a collective endeavor, whether in terms of the coding itself, producing and regulating its content, and participating in its governance. However, it would be naive to swallow the Silicon Valley dream wholesale; algorithms shaped in an entirely open way are vulnerable to manipulation, as when Microsoft invented a Twitter bot that became a white supremacist in less than a day.
A socialist Facebook will need to be shaped by both the infinite possibilities for increased participation online as well as more traditional yet accountable editorial (that is, both human and algorithmic) oversight. The outline for this governance structure can be found in Corbyn’s vision of a democratic BBC, in which he proposed a governing body to be elected by the platform’s workers and its users.
Recent crises have exploded the myth of neutrality that social media giants like to foster. But if we’re serious about the alternatives we should liberate big data and global connectivity from the anarchy of the market. Thankfully, Jeremy Corbyn has made a start.