The social media juggernaut's antipathy to democracy is barely disguised
If you think things are going to hell in a handbasket, you’re right. They are.
Or, at least, that’s what a lot of people think. Abacus Data, a polling firm closely aligned with the sunny ways and lollipops government of Justin Trudeau, even says so.
On Friday, Abacus declared that about half of Canadians think the country is on the wrong track (no surprise) — but that most approve of Trudeau’s government (ditto, it’s Abacus).
But you don’t need a pollster to figure this out. Just talk to someone you know. COVID-19, inflation, variants, winter: All of it has combined to produce a miasma of misery.
Now, we’ve all gone through that sort of thing before — viruses and prices going up, temperatures and optimism going down. It’s not new. But something is making it worse, and I know what it is.
It’s social media. Which is neither social, nor media.
Having dabbled in politics and media over the years, I can’t recall a time when democracy and civil society seemed as vulnerable as they do now. It’s the distemper of the time.
The attempted coup on the U.S. Capitol a year ago this month wasn’t the exception — it was the logical extension of the reality social media has wrought. It was Facebook made flesh, basically.
And make no mistake: Facebook is the principal cause of civil society’s incivility. It is gasoline on fires that had been merely smouldering. Twitter is punk rock Internet (which is why I, a geriatric punk, like it). TikTok is Internet Tourette’s. Instagram (owned by Facebook, naturally) is designed to make you feel fat and buy things to make you skinny.
But Facebook — with three billion “users,” not “people,” as Mark Zuckerberg once memorably termed us — is different. It’s measurably worse, because of its measure: It has a population bigger than China and India combined. All led by an unelected, unblinking, unaccountable Wizard of Odd, Zuckerberg.
Don’t believe it? Facebook has a GDP bigger than most of the biggest nations, folks: $54 billion in ad revenue — in the first half of 2021 alone.
There’s a reason why, in the early days of his governance, Canada’s national yoga instructor — the aforementioned Trudeau — switched most of the federal ad buy to social media, generally, and Facebook, specifically. It’s because that’s where most of us are. Every political party in every democracy has done likewise.
But make no mistake: Facebook’s antipathy to those democracies is barely disguised. Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of the magazine The Atlantic, excoriated Zuckerberg and Facebook in an essay there late last year. And she was right on every count of her indictment.
“Facebook is not merely a website, or a platform, or a publisher, or a social network,” she wrote. “It is all of these things. But Facebook is also a hostile foreign power.”
Why? Because, LaFrance wrote, it undermines elections. Because of how it has gutted a free press. Because it has no sense of civic obligation. Because, as noted, of its total indifference to democracy. Facebook is an “entity,” she says, engaged in a cold war with democracies around the world.
Its algorithm is specifically designed to draw to your attention to the stuff that elicits the strongest reaction. The most extreme stuff. Which, LaFrance says, means Facebook regularly promotes “propaganda, terrorist recruitment and genocide.” And it is therefore dismantling democracy.
LaFrance isn’t the only one who’s noticed. In an unguarded moment, Hillary Clinton described her dealings with Zuckerberg: “I feel like you’re negotiating with a foreign power sometimes. He’s immensely powerful.”
Because he is. And, inside Facebook, few are under any illusions about that. In the book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, an early Zuckerberg mission statement was “company over country.”
It shows. And therein lies the danger — therein lies the reason why Facebook is harming democracy itself. It has been allowed to grow too powerful, too rich, too unaccountable — and loyal only unto itself.
And its biggest asset, dear reader, is what we all see in the bathroom mirror every morning: Us. We’re mere points of data. Zuckerberg sells us to advertisers, and we go along.
Things indeed feel worse because they are worse.
Click “like” if you agree.
— Warren Kinsella is the author of Fight the Right, a Random House book about the manipulation of words by extremists.