This month, documents leaked to The Guardian newspaper revealed what many of us already knew: the internet is a lavatory for hatred. A trove of memos and other corporate doodles sent to the publisher gave us all a hint of the approach Facebook takes to its most sensitive content. This was a look into how the social media giant controls, and doesn’t control, our daily speech.
Among these guidelines, we can see some peculiar, perhaps half-formed, ideas; notably, one communication ordered that a description of murder—in this case, of a woman—was an acceptable post, whereas a call to murder a public official was not. This particular guideline, which appears to value the safety of a powerful politician with a personal security retinue over that of beaten women, received a good deal of critical press. And, so it should. If Facebook is going to impose its editorial standards on what we say to and about each other, it seems reasonable that a How To guide for killing women should be in its blacklist.
We won’t talk about that today, though, for two reasons. First, many good people already have pointed out this hypocrisy. Second, an exclusive focus on the morality of Facebook helps us forget the enormous influence of Facebook.
This sometimes delightful un-productivity tool dominates the time Australians spend on the internet. As in many nations, we love it—or, at least, are drawn to it for several hours a day. Facebook has become the place where many of us form, or fray, our social ties and certainly the place where we receive our news and acquire or develop opinions.
It’s no secret that Facebook’s algorithms feed our brains their favourite snacks. We are most likely to see only those posts that please us, or confirm what we already think we know. Even I, an enthusiastic squabbler, find myself with less to disagree about these days on Facebook. Facebook, increasingly, gives us the confirmation bias we want, and not the stimulation we might, sometimes, need.
It’s a monumentally successful business model, of course. This corporation, one that doesn’t always fit in with the culture or sovereign law of the different nations in which it operates, is likely to become history’s richest. Good on Zuckerberg etc. for developing a format we can’t seem to leave alone. But shame on our era where we permit firms to become this large and influential.
Do we really want Facebook deciding upon the terms of acceptable and unacceptable speech? This company, which relies on healthy state economies for its revenue, not only pays little tax, but, was not, to my knowledge, appointed as the world’s guardian for “appropriate” content.
It’s no secret that Facebook’s algorithms feed our brains their favourite snacks.
As much as we revile politicians, at least we elect them. We did not elect Facebook, which can dodge national laws around speech that those we have elected put in place.
In other words: a company that benefits from relatively healthy state economies, such as Australia’s, is, in my view, required at a minimum to comply with our local law and wishes. And I wish, as I imagine many might, that one company didn’t have so much power. Being just awesome at business is, or should be, no automatic guarantee of enormous power.
Facebook gets to edit the world. And it does this with the labour of many, often poorly paid, moderators. While what we receive on Facebook is controlled by algorithms, what we send still needs to be overseen by people who do not enjoy the well-designed campuses of Silicon Valley, but sit in grim rows in impoverished Filipino towns.
Being just awesome at business is, or should be, no automatic guarantee of enormous power.
I wonder what it is like for these contract workers in the Global South. While we enjoy our “free speech” discussion, they endure the world’s videos of beheadings, threats of rape and references to self-harm. Where once bodies may have been injured by machinery, now minds must withstand the evidence of the worst things in the world.
None of this is to say, of course, “Facebook is evil”—although I will say that self-imposed restrictions from its use can be a good idea. It is to say that immense companies can have an immense impact on the lives of so many, whether we are working in the knowledge factories of the global south or subject to the threats that Mark Zuckerberg has said are acceptable.
This is what happens when things get too big. The capacity for our happiness gets smaller.