I am not a fan of the decidedly left-leaning Public Broadcast Service (PBS) or its satellite adherents such as Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). These taxpayer funded media outlets follow the tradition of other mainstream media outlets – “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” – an adage often attributed to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).
So it was a surprise to learn the PBS was doing a critical piece on the left-leaning Facebook and its smug chief-in-a-gray-tee-shirt, Mark Zuckerberg. The first installment aired Monday night on PBS’ Frontline and if you have time and a DVR function on your cable or satellite service it is worth watching. (For those of you who have, like me, “cut the cable” you can find a free “app” through ROKU for PBS and with a little patience can actually access the series as, and after, it airs.) I watched the first episode Tuesday morning with a jaundiced eye knowing full well the propensity of PBS to take things out of context to make a point that may not exist in fact.
Facebook was basically created by a low-life in a typical low-life move. Mark Zuckerberg, for all intents and purposes, stole the concept of Facebook from two fellow Harvard students – twin brothers, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook subsequently paid the Winklevoss brothers $65 Million to settle their claims of theft. But let’s not deride Mr. Zuckerberg’s contribution. He was a gifted programmer and, based upon an early experience of connecting most of his Harvard brethren set out to enlarge that infant social networking experience to a worldwide audience – a goal at which he has been wildly successful.
The PBS series portrays the halcyon days of Facebook’s beginnings as a continuous party with refrigerators stuffed with beer, cartoons of large busted Amazons on the walls, skateboards weaving through bodies splayed out on beanbag chairs and a drumbeat of childish mottoes highlighted by “Move Fast, Break Things.” The most disturbing picture was that there was not a single mature adult in the room.
“Move Fast, Break Things” was, in fact, the method by which Facebook operated. Growth was its singular goal. All metrics within the company focused on growth – growth in the number of users, growth in the frequency of use, growth in subject matters for which Facebook could enhance access and use, growth without attention to consequences. And growth it was – first a 100,000 users, then a million, then a billion and then multiple billions. And all along the way, Mr. Zuckerberg mouthed platitudes about protecting the privacy of its users – a commitment that was all but ignored in practice.
But that growth generated precious little in terms of revenue – you don’t pay to use Facebook. Thus enters the Dark Queen – Sheryl Sandberg – a former executive with Google who is intent on doing for Facebook what she did for Google. While Mr. Zuckerberg may be the face of Facebook, Ms. Sandberg is its brains. Mr. Zuckerberg is a gifted programmer with a vision of using the connectivity of the internet but he knows little about the business of business and has learned little in the fourteen years since Facebook’s launch. It is Ms. Sandberg who recognized that Facebook’s real value was in advertising.
Facebook used its position as a social media king to extract information for its real business – advertising – a fact, that Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged in his recent testimony before Congress in the aftermath of the Russian use of social media to interfere in the 2016 elections. But the information extracted directly from Facebook users was not enough. Under Ms. Sandberg’s direction, Facebook became a voracious acquirer of data from other sources such as retailers, search engines (e.g. Google), and media connectors (e.g. AOL, Microsoft,). And as the users and the sources grew the sophistication of the algorithms for targeting advertising became more sophisticated. Mathematicians and software engineers (programmers) dominate the engines that make Facebook run – and they are among the best in the world.
The data collected, digested and applied to individuals was massive. Max Schrems, then a law student in Austria, became curious as to the amount of information Facebook collected on unwitting users. He made use of a “right to access” provision to request a copy of the information that it gathered about him. He received back data filling 1200 pages including messages between Mr. Schrems and his acquaintances and other highly personal and private information. It was stunning and has led to litigation between Mr. Schrems and Facebook. You should ask Facebook for your information if you want to see how deeply it has invaded your privacy.
And so there it was. Growth at any cost was its goal, and Move Fast, Break Things was its means. User privacy went out the window. Growth and revenue dominated the decision making. Without adult supervision there was virtually no attention paid to the consequences of their activities. But a sobering moment occurred in January of 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring when a spontaneous revolution, fueled in large part by the use of Facebook’s unfiltered social media pages, removed the then president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the aftermath of ten days of civil protests with accompanying violence. Many of the organizers of the protests credited Facebook as a major factor in the successful revolution. Mr. Zuckerberg and his associates basked in illumination of their importance without recognizing the dangers of the beast unleashed. Social media in general, and Facebook in particular, became a source for propaganda, for communicating action, and for coordinating resistance – none of it filtered by the truth.
One of the most telling moments in Frontline’s documentary is when one of the interviewers asks whether a platform where lies are given the same weight as truths, doesn’t lead to confusion and chaos – the responsibility for which was immediately denied because it wasn’t Facebook’s fault. Facebook relied on its customers to sift truth from fiction and lies from facts – all without any means for doing so.
What happened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring was bloodshed, destabilization, and the rise of succeeding despots. Take Egypt where a dictator like Hosni Mubarak was replaced by a dictator like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi who in turn was replaced by a dictator like Abdel el-Sisi. The responsibility for the use of social media to create chaos, destabilization and false narratives continues to be denied by the very people such as Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg who created the monster without restraints.
And in America we discovered that Russia and other hostile countries began using Facebook and other social media outlets to spread lies, confusion and discord during the 2016 elections and that those actions apparently continue today. When the truth and lies are treated as equals the exact kind of confusion and chaos as intended by Russia, in fact, occurs.
And on a smaller, more personal level, the same lack of concern over the use of Facebook and other social media to badger, intimidate, shame and bully people runs rampant – and most greatly among teenagers who lack their own filters for abuse and responding to abuse. It’s not that teenagers have changed over time. Even in the 60’s rumors, peer pressure and isolation were prevalent and weighed heavily on their targets. It is just that social media has sharpened the edge of these actions and made distribution instantaneous. It is the moral equivalent of bringing a crocodile to a dogfight.
While social media has been a boon to retailers and politicians through targeted advertising, it has also reeked havoc in personal lives and political institutions. It has created at least as much evil as it has good and Facebook stands as its second worst perpetrator.
There are solutions. Antitrust laws should be amended to deal with the trafficking in personal data. Consumer laws should be amended requiring informed consent for the distribution of data beyond those who collected it. It may be necessary for Verizon to track your movements to improve the use of cell phone technology but there is no reason that they should share that data with others without your informed consent. The same can be said of Amazon, Best Buy, VISA, and virtually every retailer in America. The era of communication has compromised your privacy without your consent. And the problem is growing.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are real life villains – men and women who have gotten extraordinarily rich by invading your privacy, sharing your secrets and preying upon your use of the internet. But even at that, Facebook is still only number TWO.
Number One is reserved for Google and its allied companies under the umbrella of Alphabet. In today’s world you cannot function without the internet and the portal to the internet is overwhelmingly Google which captures virtually every stroke on your keyboard for whatever uses they want. The common response that “you have nothing to hide” is naivete at is worst. When privacy is manipulated by mind-bending algorithms everyone has something to hide.