The Facebook Dilemma
“Making the world more open and connected,” is the incessant mantra of Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, even as the online world is funneled into its closed-walled garden, becoming more polarised and disconnected from real life. From the company’s exploitation of personal data right from the start, to outright facilitating the proliferation of a culture of disinformation and personalised information manipulation, mounting crises have converged enough to finally raise the attention of the public eye: Is Facebook more harmful than helpful? The Facebook Dilemma aims to open an in-depth investigation into the impact Facebook has had on privacy and democracy in the United States and throughout the world, by revealing how the decisions made by the company, as it sought increased wealth and new users, transformed it into a vast surveillance machine, a media baron, and a ‘hidden hand’ in elections and political discourse. Drawing on original interviews from those inside the company, this two part series catalogues some of the ignored warning signs of Facebook’s negative impact, growing from Zuckerberg’s dorm-room project and into a powerful global empire.
Part one chronicles the origins of Facebook, the foundational ethos of its internal culture, and establishes a portrait of its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, as a somewhat Machivellian figure. Publicly he repeatedly espouses purported values of empowerment, privacy and control of information, but behind the doors of Facebook, the opposite is true. Growth of the company and information sharing is paramount. Targeted advertising runs the platform, where Facebook becomes extremely rich and powerful monetising and exploiting people’s data. Privacy settings are changed in nefarious ways and despite backlash. With the company’s motto, “move fast and break things,” this episode details Facebook’s faux naivete and outright manipulation as a purported social agent for good. We see how Facebook is involved in political uprisings in the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, where Google engineer Wael Ghonim speaks about his use of the platform at the time, and with regret, the ensuing consequences in the aftermath. Austrian law student Max Schrems talks about how he finds out the extent of Facebook’s vast data collection, and that it never really deletes anything. The Federal Trade Commission becomes concerned about Facebook and the established risks to privacy, while Rand Waltzman from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) talks about Facebook being used as a propaganda tool on an enormous scale. Internally, some Facebook employees, such as Sandy Parakilas, begin raising concerns that are essentially ignored. Instead, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg prepare to take Facebook to the next level by IPO, vastly ramping up its data collection on users in the process. In the meantime, in Russia, a small company based in Saint Petersburg called the “Internet Research Agency,” starts experimenting with “online influence operations” in Ukraine on behalf of Russian businesses and political interests. The campaigns work well, and the strategy of public consciousness manipulation via social media spreads.
The second part of the investigation returns to the United States, to examine Facebook’s role in shaping the culture leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. As the company undergoes massive growth and influence, general political discourse in the United States has become parasitic and divisive. By expanding on decades-old marketing practices that helped shape a pliant and hyper-individualist consumer culture, politics turns to Facebook to exacerbate the same effect for political outcomes. With almost a decade of information manipulation being honed on the platform, and the triumph of marketing with selling President Obama, Facebook is established as a powerful tool for political manipulation. But it’s not until a British propaganda firm, Cambridge Analytica, is exposed in 2018 with connections to Donald Trump through billionaire Robert Mercer, that the United States seemingly has any qualm about these long-time happenings. Cambridge Analytica, describing itself as a “global election management agency,” has direct connections to a background in military disinformation campaigns and voter targeting, going back to the mid-1990s through a group called Strategic Communication Laboratories, and by 2012 is using Facebook to perform mass behaviour modification and perception management on a grand scale. Today, finally the public and public institutions are somewhat outraged at these methods—but ironically, and perhaps unknowingly—the very same methods the United States has been deploying the world over to manipulate elections and spread disinformation for decades. While public institutions and popular discourse frames the straw-man as Russia, the crisis of democracy in the United States is very much internal and self-inflicted.