A recent Vox piece by very-earnest-skeleton Timothy B. Lee on the varied—and valid—questions about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s curious travels of late (Iowa!) has a curious ring to it. Zuck isn’t running to be the leader of the free world, Lee suggests; instead, he’s just out doing some market research and corporate goodwill-mongering on the off chance that Facebook ever runs into an, uh, PR snafu.
Which of course has already happened and continues to happen, but don’t blame Timothy B. Lee:
“While Facebook was credited during the 2010-2011 ‘Arab Spring’ with facilitating uprisings against authoritarian regimes, the documents suggest that, at least in some instances, the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In so doing, they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.”
Lee’s argument is valid in at least one respect. With Silicon Valley freak-technocrats as our overlords, it’s at least unlikely that we’ll have a “free world” over which Zuckerberg can be emperor.
OK. So as Lee notes, corporate goodwill tours are in fact optically similar to embryonic presidential campaigns. I guess? But it feels like a tough sell to suggest that Zuckerberg would go out of his way, e.g. to all fifty states, to conduct user research on a retail politics level when the entire Facebook model is predicated on user research—read: surveillance—from a distance.
The techno-political-historical narrative is too neat here. . . so neat that it’s almost irresistible to play into it’s progression: FDR as the first radio president, JFK as the first television president, Reagan as the first film actor president, Clinton as the first late night TV president, Obama as the first online fundraising and YouTube president, Trump as the first Twitter president. Where does that leave us now?
“Hubbard argues that Zuckerberg woke up after Donald Trump’s election and realized that he didn’t understand American Facebook users as well as he thought he did. Critics charged that Facebook had facilitated the spread of fake news that may have contributed to Trump’s victory.”
Ah, and in Zuckerberg’s dystopian social imaginary, Facebook has taken the place of church and little league. Are you fucking kidding?
The tonal bias of Lee’s piece is deliciously subtle, even as it trades on the false zeitgeist of anti-Hillary fake news proliferating culture via social media and subsequently swinging an election. It’s also a great publicity pitch to imagine Zuck waking up on November 9th with a feeling of guilt, as if he and his platform (I mean, who owns it anyway?) had contributed to this hand-wringing-worthy national catastrophe that was not supposed to happen and, well, you guessed it: only Mark Zuckerberg can fix it!
But first he has to slide on his ugly little flip-flops and travel to every state and pretend to care about, understand, empathize with, or even remotely relate to the vast sea of humans like us who were somehow duped by the glitch in his code that caused us to “believe things that weren’t true” and vote for Donald Trump.
We live in a farcical age of doublespeak beyond comprehension:
“Now that he’s seen how powerful a tool Facebook can be for spreading disinformation, Zuckerberg is pushing to use Facebook’s artificial intelligence algorithm to make the site even better at organizing online communities.”
Sounds like it could be politically useful, right? Especially if you want a world in which a massive technology company has taken the place of your pastor and baseball coach. Or maybe if you want to lead a Khmer Rouge revival.
It’s no secret that in this age of moneyball politics, self-funded ultra-rich candidates—of which there are now too many to even name due to increasing income inequality—are sought, cultivated, and elevated by the major parties. Independent wealth now appears to be an even more desirable trait than supporter base, orthodoxy, or even good ideas.
Where is the limit of this phenomenon? Does it continue until only billionaires can hold national office, and multimillionaires local office? Does it continue until something worse?
To answer both questions: Possibly. What if we are now entering an age where platform can trump even money? After all, money can’t always buy our compliance—but control of the entire epistemological means of production might.
Forget money in politics. We already know that Zuckberg is studying disinformation on Facebook, and we already know of the platform’s ability not just to impact public debate, but to control it—and not just to control it, but to control people’s very perceptive faculties. And we already know a little bit about the platforms’s existing censorship policies:
“Facebook’s rules constitute a legal world of their own. They stand in sharp contrast to the United States’ First Amendment protections of free speech, which courts have interpreted to allow exactly the sort of speech and writing censored by the company’s hate speech algorithm. But they also differ — for example, in permitting postings that deny the Holocaust — from more restrictive European standards.”
And the fact that it goes above and beyond when it comes to censorship.
“Facebook is not required by U.S. law to censor content. A 1996 federal law gave most tech companies, including Facebook, legal immunity for the content users post on their services. The law, section 230 of the Telecommunications Act.”
We also know a small amount about where the company stands when it comes to cozying up to totalitarian regimes.
“The company recently pledged to nearly double its army of censors to 7,500, up from 4,500, in response to criticism of a video posting of a murder. Their work amounts to what may well be the most far-reaching global censorship operation in history. It is also the least accountable: Facebook does not publish the rules it uses to determine what content to allow and what to delete.”
What if you could draft a presidential candidate who had a controlling interest in the world’s largest ideological control valve? And what if that entire system could be harnessed to the ends of an individual political candidate or party?
The question isn’t if. It’s when.