Mark Zuckerberg is doing everything he can to address the criticisms that have been undermining Facebook’s credibility for two years, ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke out. To fend off accusations of being an enemy to democracy, the company tasked independent organizations with monitoring social networks and locating sources of fake news and fake accounts that disseminate racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic opinions.
In Italy, Facebook entrusted the NGO Aavaz for this initiative, which in turn reported that a certain number of accounts with massive followings, tied to the Five Star Movement and the Lega, were spreading fake news and derogatory accusations against well-known public persons (for instance, Roberto Saviano), which also included displays of anti-Semitism. Facebook took immediate action: the accounts were shut down.
Zuckerberg has been stressing that the company’s commitment to fight fake news is not mere window dressing. However, another recent policy change that has also had significant consequences was Facebook’s decision to unify the rules on privacy between Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, saying this would better secure the right to privacy. However, this “unification” is a highly suspect move, as Facebook’s own policies ended up being applied to all the others, while being more corporate-oriented and offering fewer guarantees than, for instance, those of WhatsApp on anonymity, or those of Instagram on the right to be forgotten.
Furthermore, Zuckerberg’s activism doesn’t seem to have had the effect he was hoping for. The latest broadside against the Menlo Park company came from Chris Hughes, a former co-founder of the social network together with Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moskovitz. In a long op-ed in The New York Times, Hughes did not mince words, calling Facebook a danger to democracy because of its ability to influence political life and the monopoly position it currently has among social networks. His op-ed ends with a call to the American authorities to put an end to Facebook’s oligopolistic activity.
The social network, with its two billion accounts and the data collected from Instagram and WhatsApp, is a juggernaut in terms of collecting and leveraging personal data for its business, second only to Google (a ranking which, however, does not include the Chinese companies which are shrouded in absolute secrecy, according to the wishes of the central government). After his exit from Facebook, Hughes has started several unsuccessful companies, but is still considered an influential figure in the American “network culture.” His choice of the Times, a newspaper which has never been particularly kind to Zuckerberg, is itself a signal to Facebook that their level of approval among their peers has dropped into the danger zone. The crucial issue at hand is that of the future of platform (or surveillance) capitalism, which is currently in difficulty because of the growing opposition it is encountering in every context in which it appropriates data from users’ interactions online.
As the economist Soshana Zuboff, the author of the important book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (which will be released in Italy by Luiss University Press next fall), wrote in an article in the Financial Times, the Facebook affair is a sign of the growing criticisms against Big Data businesses, accused of making their profits by selling the whole of the human experience online to advertisers. The demands for respecting privacy and for making public the software that “predicts” people’s future behavior are the issues that are putting digital capitalism into question. In this context, pushing ahead with the logic of “trust me,” as Facebook is doing, means going down a dead-end street of assured failure.
Zuckerberg is, to some extent, aware of all this, but so far he has been unable to reverse the trend. A sign of the difficulties he is facing, and of how much standing has been lost in the eyes of public opinion, is the change made to Facebook’s strategy during the F8 conference of software and app developers that took place in San Jose at the start of May. On that occasion, Zuckerberg jettisoned the project of building a global community mediated by the social network and replaced it with a more prosaic prospect of “private communities” based on chosen affinities—that is, echo chambers where you can enter only if you express the same point of view as those who founded the group, and which would have the power to reject or eliminate those who have points of view that diverge from the foundational policy. It’s as if Facebook is saying: we’ll give you the platform and collect your data, and you take care of your own privacy rules.
It was a radical change of direction for a company which, until just two years ago, was planning to make its social network the digital platform for a global community without borders and without frontiers. According to that plan, whoever chose to register would entrust Facebook with the role of controller, arbiter and manager, while accepting the fact that the Menlo Park company would also become the owner of their personal data.
A number of US commentators saw this change of course by Zuckeberg as laying the ground for his own run against Donald Trump in the presidential elections. Zuckerberg has always indignantly denied such rumors. In any case, two years later, there is little left of the project of a Habermasian “earthly Paradise” of free communication. It has now been replaced by a patchwork of many private communities who think the same way and have a self-regulatory mechanism. The important thing is only that the cycle of Big Data acquisition is not interrupted.
Zuckerberg wants his social network company to remain one of the top five companies on the Internet. However, many of his detractors believe that the Menlo Park company must be broken up, as the necessary price to pay to avert the more profound questioning of the capitalism of surveillance platforms as a whole.