I see a lot of complaining about how evil Facebook is and how much they’ve abused their power. But how can this social media company have any power at all? It’s really simple and obvious how to destroy Facebook – all its users simply have to stop using it. Then it will vanish and never plague us again. What does this platform provide that is in any way essential, such that its users are compelled to use it? Where is its power coming from?
A couple years back I wrote a post about when I first joined Facebook, mentioning how it had connected me to people from my past, and how it continues to connect me to people in my present. This need to connect, to have a place of gathering and belonging, is what drives the demand for platforms like Facebook. In this crisis social era, that demand is high. It’s why we all can’t just quit social media.
Remember at the end of 2020 when, after the election went to Joe Biden, Red Staters were announcing on Facebook how they were leaving for a new platform? They weren’t quitting Facebook to go off and be by themselves. They wanted to have their own social media platform for people like them, who shared their view points.
The mission statement of the Facebook company (now called “Meta”) is, in fact, to build community and togetherness. And a primary complaint people have about the Facebook company is the ways it has failed at this mission, and instead caused divisiveness. Or, if not caused the divisiveness, at least irresponsibly permitted its platform to be used by others to promote discord and even violence.
A related complaint about Facebook is that the platform allows the spread of misinformation. Never mind that different factions in our society have different ideas of what constitutes correct information. I wonder: is it more that people want the platforms they use to reinforce, rather than contradict, what they want to believe?
This complaint does raise the question of why the platform should have any obligation to be responsible for the veracity of its content. What I mean is, if such a site is simply a social gathering place, why shouldn’t people be free to post nonsense and lies? Not to say that harm hasn’t been done by misinformation on social media, but why is it the social media platform’s obligation to control the information? If I tell a lie on a street corner, does the town the street is on get blamed for it?
Now there is the argument that misinformation spreads much more rapidly on social media then it ever could by word of mouth. But even here, without some specific platform available, another could surely be found. If we did destroy Facebook in the way I suggested (on the count of three, everyone delete their account…1..2..), couldn’t people still spread their lies via, say, email chains? That’s how we did it back in the ’90s, and I’m pretty sure email providers are off the hook for whatever content is sent through their servers.
My point is that it’s not really the technology behind these phenomena, it’s the people. People are spreading the misinformation, as they always will, and just happen to be using the means that are available today. Putting the onus on a social media company for policing its content is understandable, and a popular stance, but it speaks as much to what people want from these platforms as it does to how they are run as businesses.
We want a way to gather safely, and we expect the providers of such places to exercise some authority in keeping those places safe. That’s the demand curve of this social era. The problem is, social media companies are profit-making enterprises that derive revenue from user engagement, however it can be acquired (“Attention Merchants” is what Tim Wu calls them). So long as this tension exists, where private enterprises maintain our public spaces, we will have reason to mistrust Big Tech and the platforms they provide us, even though we couldn’t conceive of leaving them.