The Ugly Truth of Facebook

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on January 6, 2022

No one doubts that Mark Zuckerberg is making great efforts to reinvent his monopoly. Besieged for years for speculating with Facebook users’ data, allowing the circulation of conspiracy theories, encouraging genocide, broadcasting live massacres, and manipulating teenagers so that they cannot leave the screen, even if it affects them, the entrepreneur is trying to change the axis of the controversy, without touching the business model he started 18 years ago and that transformed him into one of the richest men in the world.

The Facebook corporation changed its name to Meta and announced with great fanfare a huge investment to build the Metaverse, a virtual reality space where you could do everything as if you were physically in the chosen place.

Why this change? Without directly alluding to it, the answer can be found in a book just released in Spanish by The New York Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, Manipulated. Facebook’s Battle for World Domination (Editorial Debate, 2021). In English: An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.

In the oceans of ink that have been devoted to the platform, this is the first time that more than a thousand hours of interviews with executives, former and current employees and their families, friends, and classmates of Zuckerberg, plus Facebook investors and advisors, and lawyers and activists who have long fought the company are documented. The authors have better sources than all their predecessors in the genre and manage to chip away at the business model deliberately conceived to annihilate competition and squeeze out a third of the planet’s inhabitants, with profits of $85.9 billion in 2020, and a market value of $800 billion.

Frenkel and Kang show that “social network mega-profits have repeatedly come at the expense of consumer privacy and security and the integrity of democratic systems. Yet that never got in the way of their success.” They owe their privileged position to the platform’s big-picture view of its management, with a threat intelligence team that “has previously worked at the National Security Agency, the FBI and other government agencies, studying precisely the hackers and other enemies they now have under surveillance.”

One of the surprising revelations in the book is that there is more criticism within the company than we think. Many Facebook employees have tried unsuccessfully to alert their superiors about the disasters caused by algorithms obsessed with platform growth and profit. Some even warned about the Myanmar catastrophe.

Company executives knew nothing about that country, except that it was a new territory to conquer. By entering Myanmar, Facebook “threw a lit match to decades of simmering racial tension and then looked the other way when activists pointed out that the smoke was slowly choking the country,” the book says. In the end, the UN declared that ethnic tensions had drifted into a full-blown genocide with the “substantial contribution” of the blue thumb company. It is estimated that 24,000 Rohingya were killed and 700,000 Muslims fled to Bangladesh.

While that was happening, the inflammatory rhetoric of 18 million social network users monitored by only five native Burmese speakers, none of whom lived in Myanmar, was escalating. (Two weeks ago it emerged that tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have sued Facebook – now Meta – in the U.S. and U.K. for promoting hate speech).

The book shows that this case is perhaps the most extreme example of how the platform’s algorithms privilege extremism, but not the only one. More than 90 percent of Facebook’s active users live outside the United States and Canada, and the company often turns a blind eye to hate speech because it encourages user growth especially in the “dark parts” of the planet that come late, and badly, to the Internet.

But the assault on Capitol Hill in Washington a year ago brought the problem home, something that Cubans have also suffered as a result of the hard-line policies towards the island that prevail in Florida and the deep security breaches of the social platform.

The book shows the linguistic inability to understand, and therefore moderate, millions of user posts in non-English speaking communities; the incomprehension of its own algorithms; the inaction when it comes to intervening where artificial intelligence programs do not reach (the company only takes action between 3 percent and 5 percent of cases of hate speech, and in 0.6 percent of posts of violent content); and a palpable carelessness, even idleness when it comes to responding to user complaints.

So the “ugly truth” of Facebook is the toxic business of a private company willing to maintain at any price its hegemony and dominance over millions of digital subjects. One of those interviewed by the journalists comments that “Facebook’s problem is Facebook”. False. The problem with Facebook is the system designed so that these monopolies not only thrive but even change their name to perpetuate themselves. The question posed by Frenkel and Kang then seems pertinent: what are we going to do in the face of this reality?

Source: Cubadebate, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English