In their recent book “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking describe the surprising role of online communication in spurring gang violence in Chicago. They quote Chicago Alderman Joe Moore saying that, contrary to popular belief, most gang disputes begin not with conflict over drug sales or territory, but with insults hurled on the internet. (Slang terms for online threats, the authors report, include “Facebook drilling” and “wallbanging.”) According to Singer and Brooking, “80 percent of the fights that break out in Chicago schools are now instigated online.”
Chicago, of course, is far from the only place where Facebook — and social media more broadly — seems to have acted as an accelerant to violence. United Nations investigators concluded that Facebook played a “determining role” in fomenting genocidal attacks against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Hate speech on Facebook incited murderous mobs in Sri Lanka; as The Times reported, “Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing.” Social media was key to the elevation of brutal Filipino demagogue Rodrigo Duterte, and, as Bloomberg reported, his government uses Facebook as a weapon against his enemies.
Without Facebook, Donald Trump probably wouldn’t be president, which is reason enough to curse its existence. The platform was an essential vector for Russian disinformation. It allowed the shady “psychographics” company Cambridge Analytica to harvest private user data. And Facebook helped decimate local newspapers, contributing to America’s widespread epistemological derangement.
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In general, people trust local papers more than the national media; when stories are about your immediate community, you can see they’re not fake news. Without a trusted news source, people are more vulnerable to the atmosphere of disinformation, cynicism and wild conspiracy theories in which fascism — and Trumpism — flourishes. Politico found that “Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online,” voted for Trump in higher-than-expected numbers, even accounting for employment and education.
So well before The Times’s blockbuster story on Wednesday about how Facebook deals with its critics, we knew it was a socially toxic force, a globe-bestriding company whose veneer of social progressivism hides amoral corporate ruthlessness. Still, it was staggering to learn that Facebook had hired a Republican opposition-research firm that sought to discredit some of the company’s detractors by linking them to George Soros — exploiting a classic anti-Semitic trope — while at the same time lobbying a Jewish group to paint the critics as anti-Semitic. Or that C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, who has spent years cultivating an image as Facebook’s humane, feminist face, reportedly helped cover up the company’s internal findings about Russian activity on the site, lest they alienate Republican politicians.
Now we’re nearing something close to a progressive consensus: Facebook is bad. The question, as always, is what is to be done.
In theory, there could be a bipartisan coalition against Facebook, since many conservatives also fear and resent it, believing it is biased against them. (Trump has floated the idea of using antitrust law against some of the major tech platforms to pressure them to give more exposure to right-wing voices.) Given the polarization of our politics, however, it’s hard to imagine Republicans actually siding with Democrats to regulate Facebook, as opposed to simply using the threat of regulation as a cudgel.
Democrats, of course, are hardly united in seeing Facebook as a problem. As The Times reported, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer — who in 2016 received more donations from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress — pressured Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, to back off from his pointed inquiries into the company. Sandberg, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s administration, has lots of connections in Democratic politics; there were rumors she was being considered as a potential Treasury secretary in a Hillary Clinton administration.
Still, there are plenty of Democrats who are ready to take on Facebook, and we can expect the new Congress to hold hearings about the exponentially expanding influence of the biggest tech platforms. The “challenge of this enormous concentration of economic power and corresponding political power is a very serious problem facing our country,” said Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who is in line to head a House subcommittee that deals with antitrust law.
If Democrats can muster the will to regulate Facebook and other enormous tech companies, next comes the complicated question of how. Warner has laid out some intriguing ideas in a white paper. Among them are amending the Communications Decency Act to open platforms up to defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuits, mandating more transparency in the algorithms that decide what content we see, and giving consumers ownership rights over the data that platforms collect from them.
The important thing is that there are solutions; the overweening dominance of the tech platforms need not be seen as an immutable fact of nature. “We’ve seen these problems in the past,” said Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets Institute and organizer of the Freedom From Facebook coalition, which Facebook sought to smear. “We’ve seen analogous types of corporations in the past.” He pointed to "network monopolies" like railroads, AT&T and electrical utilities, saying, “there was a period in every single instance in which the people who commanded those corporations exploited the power within them to enrich themselves and to control other people in bad ways. And in every case, America said, ‘Hey, we know how to regulate this problem.’” America once had the confidence to subdue tyrannical plutocrats. We’ll see if we still do.
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Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @michelleinbklyn
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