Facebook is setting fire to America
Spreading hate and conspiracy nonsense — and for what?
Over the past few years, I have all but stopped using Facebook. There were several reasons for doing so, but a big one was that I kept getting gross right-wing content stuffed into my news feed, no matter what pages I followed or who my friends were. Life is too short to wade through idiotic Jordan Peterson videos so I can feel depressed about how many people I know from high school are now openly racist.
But the truly noxious nature of Facebook has become even more clear in recent months. The platform has become a gigantic factory of extremist conspiracy theories and genocidal hatred — part of a general trend in which right-wing publications and political campaigns have come to dominate the site — all while bleeding traditional journalism to death.
Facebook, in short, is destroying America.
Last week, Russell Brandom at The Verge reported that several people had notified Facebook that a right-wing militia group called Kenosha Guards had been making violent threats on the platform in advance of the alleged murders committed by a Trump-supporting teenager. Content moderators did nothing about it. On Monday, President Trump repeated a ludicrous fake story that antifa had loaded a whole plane to go and disrupt the Republican National Convention — which turns out to have come from a months-old viral Facebook post, just one of many similar freakouts over wholly imaginary "antifa supersoldiers." Conspiracy lunacy about coronavirus and QAnon have also spread like wildfire on the platform in recent months.
This kind of thing doesn't only happen in the United States, either. A United Nations report found that the company played a "determining role" in the attempted genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar, as extremists used the platform to coordinate and spread virulent hatred. A study of Germany found that where Facebook use was just one standard deviation above the average, racist attacks on refugees jumped by about half.
Now, it is not the case that Facebook is incapable of policing certain kinds of content. It stamps out pornography almost instantaneously, using tens of thousands of content moderators, because porn is a threat to Facebook's family-friendly brand and hence profits. (Incidentally, these moderators are horribly exploited, and experience serious trauma from all the nightmarish things they are forced to witness day after day. Facebook recently agreed to a $52 million settlement in compensation for moderators developing PTSD on the job.)
But the company is much more reluctant to police extremist political content for two reasons. First, tech platforms have long wanted to pretend as though they were above politics or regulation. They are, in fact, private dictatorships where company executives can and do regulate speech however they want, but this is an uncomfortable thing to admit when it comes to political content. Conservatives have taken advantage of this reluctance to get Facebook to bend over backwards to appease the right by constantly screaming tendentious lies about how it is biased against them, in much the same way as they bullied mainstream press outlets to do the same years ago.
Second, the company brass is increasingly openly reactionary. Former Bush administration staffer Joel Kaplan is Facebook's vice president of global public policy, and he pushes the same argument that it would be unfair to conservatives to shut down conspiracy garbage (implicitly conceding that most of that kind of junk is on the right, but never mind). The company's head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, was previously a militant anti-teacher union activist who happily endorsed Betsy DeVos' campaign to gut and privatize public education. After the 2016 election, Facebook rewrote its internal rules to allow Trump to lie on its platform. Peter Thiel, the pro-Trump billionaire who secretly used his money to destroy a publication he didn't like, and is openly against democracy, is also on the Facebook board, where he argues against fact-checking political ads.
As a result, Facebook is now ludicrously dominated by right-wing content farms. As Kevin Roose reports at the New York Times, over one week in August, right-wing personality Ben Shapiro got more interactions than "the main pages of ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR combined." Breitbart gets more likes than every Democratic member of the Senate put together. According to a Twitter account that documents the best-performing Facebook posts every day, other conservative figures like Dan Bongino and Franklin Graham are regularly at or near the top.
All these right-wing ghouls are very good at gaming the Facebook algorithm, but it simply cannot be the case that their operations — generally skeleton crews surrounding a celebrity or two, that do almost no original reporting — are actually out-competing huge news organizations with dozens of expert social media employees. On the one hand, as John Whitehouse outlines in detail for Media Matters, Facebook shovels free attention to right-wing sources by selecting right-wing garbage as fact-checkers or "trusted sources," and directly boosting conservative content. On the other, Facebook exempts right-wing publishers from its own content standards, thus allowing them to win by cheating. As Judd Legum reports, Shapiro openly games the platform's algorithm through the use of multiple front pages that all coordinate to promote his content (and he probably isn't the only one doing this). This is a violation of Facebook's terms of service, but the company lets him get away with it, just as it forgave other right-wing accounts like Diamond and Silk, PragerU, Breitbart, and Charlie Kirk for flagrantly violating its misinformation policy. (Incidentally, Diamond and Silk had the top-performing post in the country on Tuesday.) On the contrary, Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac report at Buzzfeed News that when a Facebook engineer compiled evidence that the company was giving preferential treatment to right-wing content, he was fired.
Finally, Facebook is destroying journalism in this country. The online advertising oligopoly consisting of Facebook, Google, and Amazon have snapped up 70 percent of the digital advertising market, and as a result, all but the biggest media companies are being strangled — a fifth of all newspapers have closed over the last 15 years, and most of those that remain have slashed their staff. Today, half of all American counties have only one (usually eviscerated) paper, and 200 have no paper at all.
At the recent House hearing involving all the Big Tech barons, Facebook stood out for the relative pointlessness of its core product. Amazon and Google may be ruthless and increasingly dysfunctional monopolists, but you actually can buy just about any product imaginable on the former and find just about any piece of information on the latter. Apple may exploit laborers in poorer countries and abuse its walled garden app store, but its phones are reliably some of the best you can buy. But Facebook is at best a sort of online White Pages that would be extremely easy to replace. If it were to vanish tomorrow, dozens of similar products would spring up the following day providing the exact same service — the ability to talk to your friends and family. We had online forums 20 years ago, and they were straight-up better than Facebook — at least they didn't seem to give you clinical depression.
That's what the government of Australia should keep in mind as it considers a law that would force Facebook to share revenue with publishers for being able to profit off their content. That threat to its monopoly profits naturally led the company to make a thuggish threat that it would forbid Australians from posting news articles about their country if it passed.
The government's response should be "bring it on." The company's refusal would open up space for an Australian Facebook replacement that wouldn't be so poisonous to local journalism, and could even compete worldwide by not being a propaganda arm of global fascism. I would join up immediately.