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writing for godot

A FoxFacebook's Enormous Damage? It's Already Happening

Written by Tom Cantlon   
Friday, 10 July 2020 23:48

by Tom Cantlon


I was wrong, a little bit. In February of 2018 I wrote a column, here on RSN, in which I pointed out one thing that was obvious about Facebook and similar social media, and something else that was not so obvious. A danger. I was right about the danger. I was wrong about the source.

The obvious part is that Facebook (and Twitter, and other popular media, and Google's control of our searching) amount to a near monopoly by a small group of companies over an enormous amount of the information that the public knows and learns and consumes, and that policies with significant effect on how all that goes are entirely in private hands. That leads to a danger.

Well, I might have added a little context to that first point, some details that are less obvious. The added context is some historical perspective. Yes, of course it's something relatively new, but consider a little further what that change has been.

News has always been in the hands of private companies in America in modern times, mainly private TV companies and newspapers, there's nothing new about that, But in the past there was strong competition. The news programs of CBS, NBC, and ABC competed. Big city newspapers competed to be national leaders. TV and newspapers competed with each other to be your preferred source.

But Facebook is more like a monopoly. Yes, it's on the internet and the internet has all sorts of services and sources on it, but Facebook is about it for Facebook-like media. For those who use Facebook (literally billions of users worldwide) it's not like there's a nearly-equal-sized My Space in neck-and-neck competition with it. The same with Google dominating the results of our searches. In that 2018 piece the analogy I gave was, "As if in the '80s only CBS had national TV news, or only The New York Times had produced a national newspaper."

If you liked national TV news there would have been CBS and that's about it. If you liked a national newspaper there would have been The New York Times and that's about that. No competition. If you didn't like what they did, or they started to lose track of their integrity and became somewhat unethical in their service or product, tough. There would have been no quick switch to an almost-as-good competitor. No competitors keeping each other on their toes.

Before we get to the not-so-obvious danger, take a quick look at the well known problems of Facebook and others with that historical difference in mind. The problems of controlling false information, deciding exactly what is false, how stringently to limit it, and whether to block it or label it. The problems of bad actors manipulating posts and influencing search results as Russia did in 2016, and still does. The problem of what used to be mild urban myths now free to go viral. The conflicting corporate interests of whether to let all those problems run wild because that might be what is most profitable. But more to the point, that any policy decisions about how to deal with those problems, whether to bother, or whether ways of dealing with them are fair, are all in just a few entirely private hands who don't have to answer to anyone. Entirely up to their possibly capricious whim. Far from having any say, we may not even know what changes are made or when, and there's no real competition to serve as a check.

Let's let Zuckerberg state it himself. After Trump tweeted "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," and many Facebook employees objected to it not being taken down, Zuckerberg had a conference call with a group of them about how company policies were applied to that. "I spent a lot of time basically going through all these different arguments about why this could potentially be over the line and thought very carefully about it ... And I knew that a lot of people would be upset ... But then ... I couldn’t get there. I couldn't get to that." That is, in considering various ways of reading the president's post, he couldn't see how it violated company policy, despite that he elsewhere called it "inflammatory." Got that? The process was: he considered it, he decided. While they have policies, and he has a team advising him, and he makes vague references to how "we" made the decision, it's clear that how those policies are interpreted and whether they are applied comes down to one man.

His team knows that. Here's his description of the process: "The president tweeted early in the morning on Friday, and I was asleep. The policy team saw it, started working ... to pull together an analysis that would be in my inbox when I woke up." The team knows its role is simply to advise the boss, and the boss will decide.

But revision of those ways are being considered. Revisions in, "transparency and in making sure that the procedures are clear around decision-making. So what goes into the briefing email that I get for escalations like this." Got that? The revision is that the decision will still be entirely his but he'll be a little more forthcoming about what went into it. Problem solved!

Considering all this, here's the less obvious danger. There is absolutely nothing to stop someone or something like Fox News from buying a controlling interest in Facebook and turning it into Fox Facebook. Should Zuckerberg decide to cash out, there's nothing to stop such a purchase from happening, and nothing to stop Fox from turning it into what it wants. Allow me a long quote from my previous piece, and then I'll get to my mistake.

"Facebook is largely owned by Zuckerberg. What happens if he's not around, or decides to cash out and get out of running the company? Who buys it? Who has the massive wealth to back the buying of enough of it to control it? The Koch brothers? The Mercers (who played a big role in Trump's election)? Fox News? Twitter is a public company, but a discreet effort with enough resources could buy a controlling interest or gain control of its board. The same with Google and it's parent company.

What if one or another is run by an owner or group with an agenda centered on reactionary conservative policies? Or white supremacist goals? Or that is inclined to obey elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies?

The conservative movement, some years back, sensed the power it would give them to have a news channel that pushed their agenda and they created Fox News. Can we really think they aren't salivating over the immense influence of these internet monopolies, and strategizing how to use their vast, and ever increasing, wealth to take that next step?"

I added, "It would also be a problem if it were someone with unconstitutionally Socialist goals, but the current threats don't come from that direction."

Here's where I was wrong. It doesn't take Zuckerberg wanting to cash out. He may turn out to be someone who will do it himself. He might be someone similar to Attorney General William Barr. Someone whose past would have led us to expect reasonable integrity, but who instead works openly to undermine democracy. Apparently in Barr's case the interest is power. In Zuckerberg's case it would be money.

Things are moving that way. Recent reports indicate Zuckerberg blocked earlier efforts in his company to limit misinformation. His recent conference call with a group of civil rights leaders left them cold. Trump is eager to punish social media that offend him, put into effect by his recent policy order aimed at harming them. In Trump's announcement, and in the executive order itself, Twitter, which had offended him, is repeatedly called out while Facebook is barely mentioned. If Zuckerberg is at all inclined to indulge Trump's moods the price is clearly laid out. Trump and Zuckerberg just had a phone call. There's no word on the outcome but no noises of unhappiness from Trump. To the contrary, Trump later approvingly retweeted the interview Zuckerberg gave on Fox News in which he said he didn't want to be the arbiter of truth. Zuckerberg gives the impression of either being willing to let misinformation go largely unhindered, or just someone going with whatever current circumstances will yield him the most profit. Either way, it's the same result.

In that previous piece I said we weren't just at risk of danger but had already wandered deep into a minefield unaware. I was wrong. It's worse. What I was warning could possibly happen, seems to already be happening, now, as you read this.


Tom Cantlon is a writer for a small, Western, daily paper. He can be reached at comments at tomcantlon dot com.


My previous column:


Zuckerberg quotes:


Zuckerberg blocking early attempts to limit disinformation:


Zuckerberg and civil rights leaders:


Zuckerberg/Trump phone call, and calling Trump tweet "inflammatory":


Trump retweets interview: your social media marketing partner
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