Antisocial media

It’s hardly news that online platforms are just grubby privateers

 Tom Hodgkinson

Was anyone really surprised by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s recent revelations? Haugen said that Facebook “prioritised growth over safety” and that its subsidiary Instagram makes young people feel bad about themselves. The former Facebook employee – she worked in a now-defunct department called Civic Integrity – also claimed that celebrities received different treatment to normal people. Facebook, she complained, was all about profit: “Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.”

Really? I can feel a Private Eye headline coming on. “Tech giant accused of making lots of money”. “Lions accused of killing prey”. Let’s not be naïve. Prioritising growth over safety and money over morality is built into Facebook’s DNA. It is, has been and always will be a highly aggressive ad sales operation. Facebook and other social networks exploit the vanity and desire for “self-expression” of billions of ordinary people and sell ads to companies who want to advertise to those people. End of story. The tech giants are, as former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre – a man not noted for his hippie tendencies – recently commented, “omnipotent, ruthless and . . . amoral.”

So while it’s certainly entertaining to read attacks on Facebook and the companies it owns, they’re hardly news. What is perhaps more surprising is that after nearly twenty years of patient explanations of how Facebook works by hacks, intellectuals and filmmakers alike, people still persist in believing that Facebook is some sort of altruistic venture, “connecting” people out of the goodness of its heart.

Facebook’s own defence of itself is laughably utilitarian. Responding to Haugen’s points, a spokesperson retorted: “To say we turn a blind eye to feedback ignores . . . investments, including the 40,000 people working on safety and security at Facebook and our investment of $13 billion (£9.6 billion) since 2016.” Erm, so what? That’s just a fig leaf – or corporate BS, as they say in the States.

To understand the true nature of Facebook, we need to go back to its early days. The first investment in the company was $500,000 dollars from a libertarian, Trump-supporting Silicon Valley overlord called Peter Thiel. Thiel is one of those businessmen who mistakes being highly competitive, uncaring and amoral for being cleverer than everyone else. He’s often described as a sort of philosopher; he has a band of acolytes, and he is fond of quoting Hobbes.

But journalist John Naughton, in a recent review of a new book on Thiel, said the idea that he’s a prophet is ridiculous: “Although he masquerades as a visionary who derides liberal democracy as too slow and stupid to survive, in practice he has devoted much of his career to building businesses that feed off its governments. In that sense, his actual legacy is Palantir, a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient corporation that can do magic with data analytics; in fact, it is a humdrum government contractor like the rest of the aerospace and global consultancy firms.”

Thiel made a huge fortune from his venture PayPal along with his partner Elon Musk and a few others. (Without PayPal, no Facebook and no Tesla.) I first wrote about Facebook and Thiel in 2008 in a long piece for the Guardian. I attempted to warn people that Facebook was planning to take over the world, and that it shouldn’t be called a “social network” with all the connotations of socialistic generosity that implies – “Hey, we connect people, like, what’s wrong with that?” – but should really be called a grimy media sales company with huge, overweening ambition.

“At the time of writing,” I stated, “Facebook claims 59 million active users, including seven million in the UK, Facebook’s third-biggest customer after the US and Canada. That’s 59 million suckers, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to an American business they know nothing about.” I ranted on: “[Facebook is an] extension of the American imperialist programme crossed with a massive information-gathering tool.” This information is sold to advertisers, while Facebook’s staff “simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their favourite consumer objects. Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the
information back to advertisers.”

I pointed out that newspapers were likely to suffer: “Now, by comparison with Facebook, newspapers, for example, begin to look hopelessly outdated as a business model. A newspaper sells advertising space to businesses looking to sell stuff to their readers. But the system is far less sophisticated than Facebook for two reasons. One is that newspapers have to put up with the irksome expense of paying journalists to provide the content. Facebook gets its content for free. The other is that Facebook can target advertising with far greater precision than a newspaper.”

That was thirteen years ago. Since then, newspaper circulations and advertising revenues have plummeted, partly because newspapers now give their content away for free via platforms like Facebook and Twitter – dur! When I wrote that piece, the Daily Mail was selling 2.4 million copies a day, the Sun 3.2 million, The Times 654,000 and the Guardian 368,000. Now those figures are: Daily Mail, 910,000; Sun, under a million; Guardian, 100,000; and The Times – well, we don’t know as they are too embarrassed to publish figures.

The problem with whistleblowers such as Haugen, and even with the brilliant Carole Cadwalladr, who exposed Facebook’s links to Cambridge Analytica, is that they unwittingly provide excellent PR for Facebook, because they make Facebook sound supernaturally clever and powerful, when in fact it is just very greedy, very aggressive and unburdened by morals. The whistleblowers also give Facebook the power to decide who is allowed to spout forth their views and who is not. It’s like saying, “Please Mr Facebook, stop the evil people: the ones I don’t like.”

In 2018 I spoke to the brilliant film-maker Adam Curtis on these topics. He argued that the emperor is far less richly regaled than he thinks: “When we say, ‘Facebook is a dark, manipulative force,’ it makes the people in charge seem extremely powerful. The truth is that people within the advertising and marketing industry are extremely suspicious about whether online advertising has any effect at all. The Internet has been captured by four giant corporations who don’t produce anything, contribute nothing to the wealth of the country, and hoard their billions of dollars in order to pounce on anything that appears to be a competitor and buy it out immediately. They will get you and me to do the work for them – which is putting the data in – then they send out what they con other people into believing are targeted ads. But actually, the problem with their advertising is that it is – like all geek stuff – literal. It has no imagination to it whatsoever. It sees that you bought a ticket to Budapest, so you’re going to get more tickets to Budapest. It’s a scam. In a way, the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica thing played into their hands because it made it even more mystifying.”

You can read a tweet by Owen Jones supporting nurses and, alongside that, there will be a series of ads for the biggest, most evil multi-nationals in the known universe. So, he is unwittingly working for free, for the very system which he attacks

The radicals don’t seem to get this. I am constantly annoyed by the way in which so-called progressive thinkers such as Paul Mason, George Monbiot and Owen Jones spend so much time spouting on Twitter. Their vanity, I think, blinds them to what Twitter actually is: an advertising sales business with no morals. You can read a tweet by Jones supporting nurses and, alongside that, there will be a series of ads for the biggest, most evil multi-nationals in the known universe. So, Owen is unwittingly working for free, for the very system which he attacks. The true radical would quit these platforms altogether. (Well done, Stewart Lee, for actually doing that.)

Now what of the Metaverse? Facebook has been in the news again because of its virtual reality-based mega-dreams. Like previous grand VR visions, which imagine human beings spending lots of their free time with headsets in computer game-type worlds, this one is doomed to ignominious failure. And don’t take my word for it. One of the key figures in the VR world also thinks that the Metaverse is doomed. A true visionary, Jaron Lanier is a Silicon Valley veteran, credited with helping to invent virtual reality, and recently wrote a brilliant book called Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. For my money, he’s one of the very few people out there who actually understands the Internet.

For Lanier, the best thing about virtual reality is that it makes real reality seem so alive and beautiful by comparison. In November 2021 he told the Sway podcast: “. . . if you’ve spent some time in virtual reality and then you go into a real forest, I think you’re able to love that forest in a more visceral way than is readily apparent otherwise.” He went on to say, “The best moment is the moment you take off the headset and you can see the world with freshened senses.”

The Metaverse appeals to people of limited intellect. You know how people say that someday, we will leave our physical bodies behind, and our consciousness will exist in the digital space? There’s always someone piping up with that thought – they think they’re being original when in fact it is a very obvious, banal and ultimately ridiculous idea.

Asked whether he agrees with this prediction, Lanier said: “I mean, this has been one of the bigger topics I’ve had to deal with in my life, because people keep on bringing it up. The shortest answer is no, I don’t.” He added: “When Facebook was founded, its motto was ‘Move fast and break things’. The things that were broken were societal institutions. We need to rebuild them.”

My own maxim is: keep away from anything that’s free; it’s an ad sales scam.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler. He is author of “How to be Idle, How to be Free” and, most recently, “Business for Bohemians”, all in Penguin

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