The nation of Facebook
The social media platform is bigger and more influential than most countries. Here's what that means.
Facebook is its own country. More than anything, that seems to be the dawning realization of the Senate hearings about the role technology platforms played in the 2016 election. While technology companies defended their positions, as was astutely pointed out by analyst Ben Thompson, one could watch those in power apparently learn for the first time what kind of scale is involved; Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, was shocked to learn Twitter has 330 million users. In size, and increasingly in influence, tech platforms are like their own states.
That 330 million figure thus had a coincidental, yet significant resonance: It's just a little more than the population of the United States. And as the tech press, politicians, and even celebrities start to evince a new wariness of technologies, there is an increasing worry that digital platforms aren't spreaders of openness and democracy, but instead represent a threat to the nation state.
Facebook in particular is a site of worry because of its historically unprecedented size. With two billion active users across much of the globe, the company wields a potential influence that at least threatens to outstrip the power of some governments. For Facebook, this sudden realization of its reach spells trouble because it could easily encourage governments to regulate it. For the rest of us, the consequences may be far more wide ranging.
Most obviously, this situation is a result of scale. But Facebook's increasing influence — that we might be talking at all about its role in what may be the most important election in decades — reflects its strange, hydra-like functioning. Writing in New York magazine, Max Read argued that Facebook is a hybrid entity that is part social network, part infrastructure, part media entity, and so on. The platforms hard-to-define nature makes it both invaluable to its users — as much a social calendar as it is a news source — but also hard to understand, thus making it hard to understand its multiple effects.
For now, the worry emanating from some parts of the American political system about Facebook is focused on foreign interference, which by itself is significant. Though the extent to which Russian online activity actually affected the outcome of the election has been widely overblown, conflated with the more general surprise attached to Trump's victory, the threat of further subterfuge remains very real. Anonymity, bot networks, the difficulty of moderating content and balancing free speech, plus the scale of distribution have made platforms like Facebook and Twitter ripe for abuse. When state-sponsored trolls can spend comparatively very little money and have their deliberately divisive content reach tens of millions of people, the effects could be dire.
That concern inevitably raises the specter of regulation, something that Silicon Valley has desperately wanted to avoid for years — and has succeeded in doing so. But recognizing the problem, Facebook has just warned that the steps it will take to tackle this issue will affect its profitability, a clear sign that they are willing to lose money if it involves avoiding new legal censure.
Perhaps more significant in the long term, though, is that Facebook, Twitter, and other Valley companies seem to have manifested the term "social media" to an extreme degree — that is, they are becoming among the key ways that societies mediate a relation to themselves. It is not so much that these platforms in and of themselves are going to become all-encompassing corporate super villains. Rather, it's that because their scale extends beyond any single country, people and entities could use the platform to skirt around the traditional limits of the state.
In a sense, this is precisely the effect that Trump had on the 2016 election. Able to bypass the traditional power structures of both media and government, he was able to influence public discourse around a variety of issues, whether trust in media, international relations, or the general of tone of politics. And as president, he's continuing to do so. This reach extends far beyond the limits of America, as Trump and his brand of nationalist, Eurocentric rhetoric has found fans all around the world.
Giving outside voices a platform to challenge the establishment of course has its upsides. But for hundreds of years, that paradoxical sounding function of "mediating a relationship to ourselves" has been performed by the state. Nations are in part practical organizing principles: They are ways of determining which entity is responsible for roads, currency, health care, energy and any number of other things. The point is that at scale, the nation state forms a stable bedrock for a society.
But at a more abstract level, states are ways of understanding a position in the world. They are expressions of ideology. We look to political leaders for guidance in times of crises, just as we express broad social desires through elections or media or even protest. Governments are thus not just practical organizations, but idealistic ones, representative of how we understand a relation to the world — even when we profoundly disagree with who happens to be in power.
What social media does is allow for both unusual state actors like Trump, and extra-state actors to have a platform and gain a following, and importantly, do so beyond traditional national boundaries. The burgeoning reactionary movement of the alt-right, for example, has found strength in coalitions that cross the Atlantic, helping the return of destructive notions of Western supremacy or white nationhood. Given the election in question, it's not hard to see how similar rhetoric of nationalism, anti-immigration, and masculine strength is finding favor around the world, too. Debates we had once considered settled — such that, say, racism is bad — seem to be rearing their ugly heads again, and social media is part of the reason why.
But the point is not that social media is upending the safe, healthy cocoon of the nation state, a thing we must preserve. Rather than thinking about what is lost, it may be more helpful to think about what happens to the nation when entities like Facebook — which are far bigger and whose infrastructure extends beyond many countries — start to form a kind of platform for new ways of organizing people.
After all, it was the confluence of a number of technologies — the telegraph, the train, the printing press, and more — that enabled the nation state to form in the first place, unifying far flung people through physical and ideological links. Now that we are immersed in technological platforms that we turn to for media, for socializing, for finance, and community, it may be time to not just think about regulation, but rather, what role the nation state plays when groupings may become even more virtual than they are in the form of a "country." Indeed, as these platforms continue to grow, it may turn out that their most profound effect is not what happens inside countries — but what happens to the idea of a country itself.