Facebook: surveillance capitalism at Its worst? (Book Review)

It was initially known as The Facebook and one of its original aims was to rate hot Harvard girls

M.R. Narayan Swamy Aug 02, 2021
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Facebook

It was initially known as The Facebook and one of its original aims was to rate hot Harvard girls. Once Mark Zuckerberg took over it fully, it ballooned into a social media giant called Facebook, gained immense popularity as an online networking platform across the globe and in 2020 boasted 2.8 billion active monthly users.  

But simultaneously, it became a Frankenstein monster that killed competitors, abused users’ privacy and unleashed an epidemic of toxic content reaching billions around the world with disastrous consequences.

It took a highly controversial US Presidential election in 2016 - that catapulted Donald Trump into the White House - for Facebook to come under unprecedented attack from those who prized liberal values. By then, Trump had done much damage: posted statements and photos that included blatant untruths shared conspiracy theories widely discredited and deemed dangerous, and endorsed figures tied to hate groups. Facebook accepted millions of dollars from Trump for political ads that helped him spread dangerous ideologies, badly dividing America.

Equally worse, Facebook kept quiet even after noticing in March 2016 suspicious Russian activity by hackers collecting intelligence about key figures in the US elections. The Russians allegedly bought over 3,300 advertisements costing roughly USD 100,000 on Facebook. In the process, they reached a whopping 126 million Americans.

Using Facebook pages, the Russians, pretending to be Americans, did precisely what some US intelligence officials suspected: hacking Trump’s rival Hilary Clinton’s campaign and releasing critical emails to embarrass the Democratic frontrunner for President. The hackers enticed American journalists to write stories and promised more salacious emails. Trump egged on the Russians.

All this created a storm within, claim New York Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in this damning expose of Facebook. Employees had been asking for years: did Facebook favor populists? “Over the years, the campaigns of (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi in India and (president Rodrigo) Duterte in the Philippines had used Facebook to win over voters.” Once Trump got into the act, concerns grew more widely in the company.

Right-wing pressure

Even before Trump unleashed venom, Facebook was under pressure from right-wingers. It virtually caved in. Glenn Beck of Blaze TV used Facebook to falsely accuse a Saudi of involvement in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Worse, American far-right radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, with a huge following, claimed shockingly that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, was faked and families who lost children were paid actors. Employees voiced disgust with Facebook, which was meant to be politically neutral.

Amid a global rise in hate speech, Facebook’s name surfaced repeatedly as a source of conspiracies, false news and organized hate speech. But its managers declared that false news didn’t run afoul of Facebook rules! By then, Facebook had mastered how to convert personal data into a cash cow.

The more time users spent on the site, the more data Facebook mined. The lure was free access to the service, but consumers bore steep costs in other ways. Data security within Facebook was so poor that 52 employees were fired between January 2014 and August 2015 for exploiting their access to confidential user data. “For over a decade,” the book says, “thousands of Facebook’s engineers had been freely accessing users’ private data.”

The problem with Facebook was that while it technically barred hate speech, what constituted hate was never clear. By its first anniversary in January 2005, over a million people – mostly students -- were using it. The number rose to 5.5 million by the end of 2005, by when it had become “Facebook”. But when Yahoo in 2006 offered USD 1 billion to Zuckerberg, he rejected it, determined to grow far bigger. In anger, his entire management team quit.

Over the years, Facebook indeed acquired more users than people in the world’s most populous country China. In 2020, its revenue was USD 85.9 billion and market value USD 800 billion.

Scandals and commercializing personal data

Facebook users’ personal data should have been kept out of view from advertisers but this wasn’t done, the authors say. Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia remarked: “Facebook has been duplicitous and irresponsible with data for years.” Its profit was contingent on the public’s cluelessness. Each time regulators and civil society ganged up against him, Zuckerberg offered a perfunctory apology – and carried on as before.

Amid rising toxic content, Facebook ignored its own rule prohibiting children below 13 years from holding accounts. In May 2011, there were 7.5 million such underage users. Employee morale began to flag while anger mounted against Zuckerberg. A 2010 event that caused protests was a ban on a pro-democracy group in Hong Kong – when Zuckerberg was trying to enter the Chinese market.

There was also the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The company had obtained profile information, records of likes and shares, photo and local tags, and lists of friends of tens of millions of Facebook users. All this was due to a program called Open Graph whose biggest advocate was Zuckerberg. Facebook stock dropped 10 percent, wiping out USD 50 billion of its market capitalization.

American billionaire investor George Soros blamed partially Facebook’s business model for the mess. The consensus inside the company was that growth came first and safety and security were an afterthought. Facebook spent huge amounts on lobbyists to blunt the attacks in Washington. All this triggered a high turnover in Facebook.

2020 US election

Driven to the wall, Zuckerberg twice met Trump quietly as another presidential election neared. Trump’s campaign wanted to spend USD 100 million on Facebook, more than double the 2016 election. Facebook suddenly announced it would give political leaders a complete and unchecked voice. Trump’s account was untouched even as he spewed falsehood about Covid-19 and spread false or misleading information. There was a dramatic rise in extremist and conspiracy content.

In contrast, Twitter was more pro-active vis-à-vis Trump. When Trump lost, Facebook allowed white supremacists to openly discuss plans to travel to Washington for protests that turned violent. Rioters used Facebook and Instagram accounts to live-stream themselves from the Capitol halls.

It was only after the election that Facebook de-emphasized political content. But despite whatever it did while ignoring consumer privacy and safety, success has relentlessly shadowed Facebook. It has proved to be an unstoppable profit-making machine that could prove too powerful to break up. Even if that happens, the technology unleashed upon the people is here to stay. Facebook’s purported mission is to advance society by connecting people but while profiting off them. This, the authors say, is the ugly truth, a cross that its users - and even non-users - will have to bear for the cost of remaining connected. 

(An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination; Authors Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang; Publisher The Bridge Street Press; Pages x + 334; Price Rs 799)

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist)