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Social media promised us democracy — but gave us dictatorships

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen. (Jabin Botsford/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Frances Haugen, better known as the Facebook whistleblower, tells a story about her former boss, Mark Zuckerberg, that helps explain why Facebook — and Twitter and Reddit, for that matter — feels like such a toxic waste dump these days.

In 2020, members of Narendra Modi’s ruling party in India had published Facebook posts calling Muslims rodents and traitors, and saying they should be shot. Given that this was clearly hate speech, and that such propaganda is, historically, an indicator of imminent ethnic violence, employees inside the tech giant felt certain they had to act.

“Thirty-plus people across the company,” Haugen recalls in her new book, “The Power of One,” convened to determine the “conditions under which Facebook should step in and take down speech from political actors.” The team crafted a proposal that “provided detailed criteria for what counted as speech risking communal violence” — and when Facebook should take such posts down.

There was a sticking point, however: If Facebook removed Indian politicians’ posts on grounds of ethnic hatred, the company might be compelled to take down Donald Trump’s posts, too.

Still, everyone on Haugen’s team expected the proposal to get a green light — Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg herself agreed that the posts should come down. They all well knew, after all, what had happened in Myanmar when the ruling party turned to Facebook to spread hateful, violence-inciting propaganda.

“People killed their neighbors,” Haugen told me.

So she, along with the rest of her Civic Integrity team, were floored when Zuckerberg dismissed the proposal. Never mind that countless hours had been spent fine-tuning this policy, with dozens of the company’s experts weighing in. They would need a new one — which Zuckerberg proceeded to write himself, over a single weekend. Zuckerberg could set himself such a tight deadline, Haugen realized, “because his policy was simple: Facebook would not touch speech by any politician, under any circumstances.”

And that was that. All of the team’s work, overruled in an instant by a lone, unimpeachable executive.

The story, which Haugen detailed to me during a recent stop on her book tour, illustrates why she felt she had no choice but to blow the whistle if she hoped to instigate change. It also strikes at what’s tearing the rest of the web as we know it apart too.

After all, it’s not just Facebook that has seen its outlook darken, engulfed in scandals and marred by dubious business decisions. Twitter is collapsing, its revenue down more than 50%. Reddit’s users are in open revolt. Last year, critics predicted that the age of social media was ending. Every day, it’s looking more and more like they were right.

We might have seen the collapse coming long ago. Because there’s a paradox that all of these so-called Web 2.0 companies, which rely on users to generate, share and even moderate content, have in common — and it’s leading, inexorably, to their downfall. They have all promised digital democracy, but delivered dictatorships.

Facebook’s corporate structure is famously undemocratic; thanks in part to the advising of early investor and board member Peter Thiel, Zuckerberg organized his company in a way that left him in command of 58% of the shareholder vote. He has nearly absolute power over his vast social media empire. He’s not alone.

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter, took the company private and fired most of the staff, the site has been managed according to his whims alone. This is how claims of “free speech absolutism” live alongside rapidly honored requests to remove dissenting posts in autocratic countries like Turkey — and Modi’s India. It’s how hate speech is tolerated but accounts tracking public flight data are not.

No one believes any longer that any sort of cohesive policy structure guides the governance of Twitter — what Elon wants, Elon gets. If he is offended by accounts impersonating him, rest assured that there will soon be a policy banning that practice. Ditto with competitors’ products such as Substack Notes or Mastodon; if they’re seen as a threat, a policy will materialize to limit their spread on Twitter.

Even the new chief executive, Linda Yaccarino, hired in an apparent bid to win back fleeing advertisers, still refers to Musk as “the boss.” It’s clear who’s running the show. He’s like Zuckerberg in that way.

Big deal, you might say; these men are executives of major companies. This is what they do. But Facebook and Twitter aren’t like other companies. They are social networks that provide crucial digital infrastructure for hundreds of millions of people. And they are companies that have presented themselves as harbingers and facilitators of democratization — Facebook’s mission statement is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” (Its previous one was “to make the world more open and connected.”) Twitter clings to its mythos of enabling the #ArabSpring, and Musk touts it to this day as the world’s “digital town square.”

But Musk and Zuckerberg are not delivering democracy or improving communities — they are not even running social organizations. They are doing something closer to the polar opposite.

This tension, between the multifaceted needs of the millions of users of the internet’s biggest social media networks and the increasingly autocratic way they are governed, has finally become untenable. The radically complex needs of hundreds of millions of people coexisting in online spaces cannot and will not ever be met by executives who are ultimately incurious and intolerant of democratic principles in their own organizations.

And it’s not clear what users can do about it. In most public companies, there are mechanisms to remove an executive who’s lost confidence from power — not at Facebook. And since Twitter the company is private — while the platform it operates is very, very public — Musk is free to govern it as he chooses.

Thanks to Haugen’s leaks, we have an inside view of just how many times people inside Facebook raised alarm bells, or put together a carefully crafted solution to address a persistent problem, only to see it scattered to the wind. Groups trying to rein in toxicity or prevent future genocides are dissolved.

As for Twitter, well, these days, it even has dictatorship vibes — not only is the basic infrastructure falling apart, with features crashing left and right, and the policies are being made up based on whatever made Musk angry the night before, but those who pledge allegiance to the leader by paying a monthly fee to the administration get a special badge and the privilege of jumping the line in replies. (It says something that the most meaningful check on Twitter’s power might be Zuckerberg’s, in the form of Threads, a near-clone of Twitter that has racked up tens of millions of users since Facebook launched it Wednesday.)

Worst of all, perhaps, Musk and Zuckerberg’s approach is, for now, winning the day. Steve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit, which is largely made possible by the volunteer labor of moderators who operate the sites’ very popular forums, or subreddits, recently decided to radically change policies and begin charging exorbitant fees for access to data and features that used to be free. He said, explicitly, that he was inspired by Musk.

As a result, many of those moderators that have worked, for free, to build communities on the site for so long, took their subreddits private in a display of protest. The showdown between CEO and unpaid volunteer laborers continues to this day.

“The episode illustrates a basic tension at the heart of the Web 2.0 paradigm,” Ben Tarnoff, the author of Internet for the People, a tech worker and co-founder of Logic Magazine, tells me. “On the one hand, you need to elicit the active participation of your users in order to create an online environment where people want to spend time. You need to create a ‘community,’ in other words — the core Web 2.0 concept.”

Just as Facebook and Twitter strove to do. But this also introduces a risk. “Users may begin to feel, with justification, that since it is their activity that sustains the site, they should have some say in how the site is run,” Tarnoff says.

“Ultimately, they’ll run into limits, however, for the same reason that community self-governance is incompatible with the ownership structure of a capitalist firm and its structural imperative to maximize profit.”

Look, that imperative was always there. These companies never came remotely close to fulfilling their communitarian and democratic promises — there was no monetary incentive to do so. (Note that the user-generated websites that are still thriving are nonprofit organizations, such as Wikipedia.)

Ultimately, the profit motive baked into Web 2.0 from the start was going to supersede any interest in sustaining robust communities, and we’re simply seeing that play out most starkly in the two cases where the executives at the top have consolidated the most power and are least interested in the users who spend time there, or the people at the company trying to improve it.

Even investors recognize this. “It is unwise to have so much power concentrated in one person,” the activist shareholder Jonas Kron said in a 2019 Facebook shareholder meeting, as part of a doomed bid to pass a resolution to diminish Zuckerberg’s power. A majority of shareholders voted in favor, but it didn’t matter, because he holds more shares.

And if there were a body capable of constraining Musks’ erratic behavior online, the company would profit immensely — advertisers, which supplied 90% of Twitter’s revenue pre-Musk, might well return, for one thing. But in a social media dictatorship, there’s no mechanism to appeal for such a change.

Or any other kind of change. The last decade has given us a litany of examples of the toxicity, harassment, racism, propaganda, hate speech and incitement to violence that can thrive on a social media network when they are run by unaccountable leaders with undemocratic rules. “When they dissolved the Civic Integrity team,” Haugen said, “that was when I knew nothing was going to change from the inside.”

Her whistleblowing did not bring the walls crashing down — in fact, in the U.S., Facebook has still faced few if any direct legal repercussions despite its many documented misdeeds. But that doesn’t mean it’s not vulnerable.

“There’s a saying,” Haugen told me, paraphrasing the Hemingway quote, “that things happen slowly, then all at once.”

Yes, dictatorships can stick around for a long time. They can also turn brittle, surprisingly fast. And they can collapse.


© 2023 Los Angeles Times

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