Blowing Facebook’s Whistle

Finally we get some testimony that cuts through the mis-directing conversation about censuring Facebook to get to the real and very serious problem the social media platform presents.

A former Facebook staff person named Frances Haugen went before Congress last week to explain what Facebook does that is most harmful to us.

For years now, there’s been a public debate about Facebook permitting people to lie, insult others (particularly women) and gang up on people to make their lives miserable and to peddle misinformation about things that are important. It is, in fact, a very real and horrible problem that ruins lives and the debate is among the most important around technology.

So far, however, it has swirled around several predictable questions: Should Facebook be censored? Does it self-censor competently? Should the government be doing the censoring? With what criteria?

My answers have always been: No, No, God no! and That’s the problem with the question. While immediately attractive, censorship leads us into bigger, long-term problems. A government that censors speech is just plain dangerous…always. A company that censors speech is going to commit idiotic errors. Do you, as a movement person, really want some Facebook staff-person who has never even seen a real demonstration wiping your complex analytical posts? Do you want your analysis of and arguments opposing fascism to be cast in the same basket with the filth fascists are writing? Do you want your take on the social situation rendered by collapsing capitalism to be lumped together with the rants of homicidal anti-vaccine activists?

Because, for many of the people who would presumably censor Facebook postings, there is no real difference between the left and the right. These are the people who call Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes “far left”. They have no political criteria. They shut down a fascist account and then they come after yours.

Well…and…the government of the United States is okay with that now and, at some point in the near future, will cheer-lead such repression. Right now, fascist thuggery is the government’s biggest enemy but soon enough, if we organize as we should be, we’ll take its place on the target.

So…no…censorship of Facebook is not the answer. It’s dangerous and it’s actually counter-productive. We want to debate the right and should never be scared of debate or fierce exchanges with it. Right-wing thinking is moronic and we can defeat it in every terrain if we stick to our guns and step up. Well, we have to do that; that’s the essence of our work. We have to convince the majority of people in the United States that this is a society that needs transformation at its most radical level. If that doesn’t happen here and world-wide, the human race will disappear.

The debate over that is going to get nasty and scary because fascism works that way. It lies, it manipulates people’s fear and anger and then it gets them to act on that fear and anger in destructive and self-destructive ways. We should expect that any arena for mass communication, like the Internet or its major subsets like Facebook or Instagram, will reflect that. What’s happening on Facebook is what is happening throughout our society and the world. It’s to be expected and welcomed. It’s our struggle being more and more successful.

So what’s the real problem with Facebook? Something much more pernicious than what it allows. It’s what it encourages and how. Facebook is not a neutral platform or a kind of technological blank slate: it’s a participant in the culture wars that form, reform and distort our mass thinking.

As Haugen pointed out, the Facebook algorithms (the code that makes the system work on that platform) are directed towards increasing our use of it. That’s how it makes money — by counting all the times you visit a page and charging the people who are advertising on that page for those “hits”.

Now how does it do that? The main way is to identify “triggers” in your visits.

Most of this is about products. You show an interest in a kind of product or mention some product in a post and you’ll start getting ads for those products. They take the form of ad posts or “previews” of videos in the “placements” section of your app’s page. This happens with Facebook and Instagram and, by extension and influence, with just about any other social media program you’re using. You even see it with Google search…heck, that’s where you most prominently see it.

It doesn’t stop with products. If you visit a fascist page (even out of curiosity or for research), Facebook will start feeding you other fascist pages as possible sites to visit. It does this by its “promotion system”, a way of making sure some content goes to the top of your feed while other content…well…doesn’t.

What kind of content qualifies? Facebook doesn’t reveal anything about its feed choices, algorithms or, for that matter, how the system works. But we know it’s all money-driven and so the more you visit places, the more money Facebook is making. As Haugen pointed out, they are going to favor those pages that have more hits, provoke more controversy, call more attention to themselves.

Of course, you’re not going to be convinced of fascist ideas, but you’re not the target. The target is the massive number of disillusioned, pissed-off people who should be in our movement and at the same time are prone to recruitment by fascism. Feed placement is an insidious form of cultural manipulation and Facebook’s version isn’t aimed at a specific audience, it just targets people by its very nature.

Think of what happens to an impressionable young person whose primary source of news is Facebook, Twitter and maybe some form of interactive messaging. They come on-line and visit their Facebook feed and all they see is right-wing disinformative garbage: vaccine kills, face-masks are repressive, white race is being replaced, lesbians are taking over.

We humans are taught that what makes us unique is our ability to transform our environment. True enough but that’s dialectical because there is no animal on Earth more affected and molded by its environment than us. When the environment includes a constant dose of right-wing propaganda, that average mind is going to increasingly accept it.

Fascist propaganda is comprised of two elements: there is a lie and there is the insistence, uniform in every lie, that everything that contradicts that lie is corrupt. So, in the jaded world of U.S. fascism, the media, government, Congress, Anthony Fauci and just about everyone else who isn’t a right-wing fanatic cannot be trusted. They are part of a huge conspiracy funded by…fill in the blank (used to be George Soros but I think that’s changing) with the purpose of replacing white people with the world’s majority and…this is probably another blank you can fill in.

There is a built-in defense here. It goes: Sure, there are lots of sources saying we’re not telling you the truth but they’re liars…always have been. So believe what we’re saying.

Facebook drills in that message by “tagging” posts similar to stuff you’ve seen and read and, in that way, it increases volume of use and, in that way, it increases the money it charges ad people for information about you or for placing ads on the page.

Ads, by the way, are still Facebook’s primary income source. Lots of advertising and lots of income.

It’s the ultimate algorithm-driven service, existing only to make money and it makes money by increasing visits and pushing ads.

That is done by controlling your behavior.

“…when you scroll Facebook and you think you`re just seeing what your friends are doing, every time you scroll, imagine you activate a supercomputer pointed at your brain that has seen two billion people interact with it today.” Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology explained to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes this week.

“And it knows that if you are someone who clicked on an article saying, the vaccine is unsafe, it says, oh, well, you`re just like these this other bucket of users. And this video over here that made fun of so many errors in the vaccine data or something like that, that worked really well for them.”

So Facebook promo’s the video. Simple. This is cultural manufacture, the process of framing your consciousness.

Are you victim to it? I don’t think you are. If you read this, you probably have a pretty highly developed level of political consciousness and you can see stuff like this coming at you. You can’t resist it fully but you do resist a lot of it.

But most people don’t have that consciousness and so they’re mesmerized by the carousel of disjointed, biased and sometimes mendacious information that swirls around their daily existence. On-line life is a major part of that carousel and Facebook not only profits from that but it specializes in refining the swirls and repetitive cycles that lure you into buying and believing, that mold you culturally. Facebook and its connected services have advanced the science of cultural control in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago.

This stuff isn’t impact neutral. It’s not “non-partisan”. In fact, although it can affect the outcomes of elections, its true impact dwarfs any race or momentary political two-sided controversy. This is the molding of a social reality, the control of a culture, the construction of an ideology.

How is that working for you? Take a look at Zuckerberg’s photo. You want that molding your ideology?

So what do we do about it? First off, we stop asking government to do what we, as a movement, should be doing. We do not want the government ever forcing anyone to censor anything. Clearly, Facebook censoring is its legal right — it’s a private company not covered by any amendment — but the government is another story. Once it starts pushing Facebook to censor, it’s a small step until it starts pushing you to censor. Maybe that’s not going to happen under Biden but, if a right-winger is elected to the White House, it will almost certainly occur.

We have to handle our business with Facebook. I would suggest three things right off the bat and think we should talk about how to do these things as a united movement:

1 — Collectively establish “facebook time” limits (you know…like “face time”…clever right?). You agree to go on Facebook for a half hour a day and that’s it. Same with all the other “social media”. Time limited. Then you push that among friends and acquaintances.

2 — Circulate the points in this blog entry although it’s been said before and much better by others.

3 — Organize our response strategy to push back against fascist stupidity. This should include what we say but also where we say it because some places on-line aren’t worth your time. It might seem great to “talk to” fascists but we don’t have time for that right now. We need to talk to people who are deciding about their lives and that, right now, is the majority of this country.

Let me say one final thing about deciding who to talk to. We need to dump the approach of talking to everyone as if they are equally important. There is a certain population, the majority right now, that should be the focus of our work. These people aren’t activists in the electoral politics system: they are active at a work-place, in a school system or in a community. They are just regular people who have influence on others and are respected by them — you know them the moment you see one. You could make a list of the ones you know right now. They are often not very loud or aggressive. They aren’t quick to decide things.

But they are battered by propaganda that vilifies your thinking, distorts what you are trying to do, casts you as an enemy of everything good. Left unanswered, that propaganda will convince those people.

We want to turn that around by talking to them about the society we want to create and how to do it. We want to start an open conversation about the future we envision. We want to debate.

We can apply that approach to our work around social media and to our work around…well…everything.

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