Facebook Is a New Form of Power

Typically for
Silicon Valley, Facebook’s June announcement
of plans to launch a global, digital currency—Libra—spoke of empowering
billions of people, especially those without access to banking. Also typically,
skeptics were quick
to ask
whether anyone should actually trust the behemoth with such a tool. France’s
finance minister raised concerns
about privacy, money-laundering and terrorist use, and U.S. lawmakers
called on Facebook to cease all development of Libra. At hearings last week,
Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy criticized
the centralized nature of the planned Libra currency as compared to Bitcoin. In particular,
launching a currency strengthens an analogy
many have found troubling in the past: Facebook as a government, rather than a
company. Facebook’s size alone makes it unlike any other corporation on earth.
Its decisions over what algorithm to use, what content to allow on the
platform, and how to use the data it collects
about its users, give it more influence over our daily lives and behavior than
any other privately owned institution. Its carelessness can lead to national
elections being swayed ,
or ethnic violence
breaking out. Add to that the idea of Facebook having its own currency (a
defining feature of states) and Facebook truly does start to sound like a
government—a thought haunting House hearings last week. “Tell me how Libra will
not undermine sovereign currencies and central banks, or is the very point to
undermine central bankers and to provide a greater freedom away from central
banking?” Republican Representative Andy Barr, asked Wednesday. But while the Facebook-as-government
theory captures something about the company’s power—mainly because government is
our most familiar model for concentrated power—the analogy is hugely imperfect.
The kind of power that Facebook is acquiring is neither that of a mere company,
nor that of a government; it is creating a new paradigm of power altogether. Strong critiques
of Facebook’s power, such as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’s piece
in the New York Times last May calling for the company to be broken up, tend
to focus on Facebook’s market share as the main problem. In other words, Facebook
seems to have a monopoly. Back in May, Hughes pointed out that Facebook generates
80 percent of all social media revenue, and cited Adam Smith’s warning about
how monopolies can stifle competition, innovation and ultimately economic
growth. But Hughes also hinted that something else is going on: “It’s not just
that Facebook is a really big social network, it’s everything.” That may be an
exaggeration, but less so with the advent of a Facebook currency.  The so-called network effects of
Facebook are already very powerful, not just because of its share of the market,
but because of the absolute numbers of its users—2.4 billion every month. It’s already
difficult for users and for businesses to opt out of Facebook. Despite its annus
horribilis in 2017, the company has continued to grow its customer
base, and the value of its stock has gone up. Those who stay on the platform
despite misgivings about privacy and other concerns might want to think that they
do so as a result of a rational calculation — exchanging surveillance for convenience—but in
reality, Facebook has created habits that are hard to break .
The #DeleteFacebook moment
didn’t last very long. Facebook has created an environment in which opting out,
for many, carries too high a cost. For some, the price is in social networking,
but for others in certain developing countries it has at times amounted to not
being connected to the internet at all .
When the company serves as such a powerful gatekeeper, the degree to which participation
is voluntary becomes questionable. This is what makes people reach for the
government analogy, a central power structure that we are part of, whether we
want to be or not. If Facebook manages to get a large portion of its 2.4 billion users
to take up the new digital currency, networking effects will only get stronger:
If nearly a third of the world ends up buying and selling in Libra, the company
will have become indispensable at a whole new level. This no longer
resembles the power of a company monopolizing a particular sector of the
economy: Facebook is stretching into completely new territory, unrelated to its
original product, with apparent plans to dominate that too. But the government
analogy is not right either. Facebook is not a lawmaker, it doesn’t have the
power to coerce people with violence, and is itself subject to the power of the
governments of the countries in which it operates. In a famous exchange
between the French philosopher Michel Foucault, and the American linguist and
political theorist Noam Chomsky, Foucault argued that it is misleading to think
that the sole purveyor of political power is the government and its
institutions. Instead, he proposed that political power is also exercised by “institutions
that seem to have nothing in common with political power and seem independent
from it, but actually are not.”     Foucault dedicated
much of his work
to showing that power comes in many different forms. The government’s ultimate
form of power over its citizens is coercion under the threat of physical
violence, whereas other kinds of power operate in more subtle ways. One of
Foucault’s examples was disciplinary training within prison, where the exercise
of power over inmates is not simply through physical confinement and force, but
via control of their daily schedule, constant surveillance, and the formation
of new habits. Facebook’s power
over us lies more in these subtle Foucauldian modes than in its market share or
government-like size. It has created new habits in us—the filling of every
uncomfortable moment of boredom or social awkwardness with a mindless firing of
the app, the compulsive scrolling through its news feed, the search for signs
of social approval in its notifications. Facebook has also shaped the ways we can
interact with one another online: We use a like button to express approval, interest,
support, or enthusiasm—or can opt for one of the less dignified set of prescribed
emojis. And the app alters our daily schedule and routines, not least by affecting
the hours of sleep
we get. That’s not to mention the surveillance and data gathering which, when projected
back at us in the form of advertising and suggested content, can teach us to
see ourselves differently ,
through the eyes of who Facebook thinks we are. If Facebook ends up mediating
and monitoring our daily monetary exchanges too, who knows what other behaviors
it will affect.    Understanding
the nature of Facebook’s power is important because only then does it become
possible to critique it and overcome its bind. Seeing Facebook as a government
doesn’t help with those goals. We can’t vote it out of office, and we can’t
stage a revolution to overthrow it. Understanding Facebook as just a monopoly
isn’t enough either. Even if the company’s subsidiaries, most notably Instagram
and WhatsApp, were broken off the mother ship, Facebook would still be the
largest social media company by a long way. Government could,
of course, stop Facebook from acquiring any more power. It could simply not
allow Libra to go ahead. Some are beginning to think the government will choose
to punish Facebook’s
past sins in precisely this way. But it’s also important to conceptualize the type
of power that Facebook is already wielding over our lives. Only then will we
able to resist it. 

2019-07-22 | Facebook, Currency, Politics | English |