Back in 2011, The Onion’s now-defunct TV series ran a sketch in which then–CIA director Leon Panetta bestowed a “medal of intelligence commendation” on “the Overlord,” Mark Zuckerberg, for inventing the “single most powerful tool for population control” the agency had ever enjoyed. These days, Facebook is fulfilling the predictions of even its most dystopian satirists; the only thing The Onion got wrong was the CIA’s competence. According to a devastating investigation last December by The New York Times, Facebook is running a de facto spy agency—not for the US government, but for anyone willing to purchase its data.
Among the recent revelations: Facebook sells the names of its users’ “friends” without consent and allows certain corporations to read and delete private messages. It also sells the names and contact information of users and then lies about it; permits the companies that purchase its data to conceal this fact; and allows these same companies to ignore the preferences of people who disable their sharing settings.
Meanwhile, another investigation, this one by Privacy International, found that Facebook “routinely tracks users, non-users and logged-out users outside its platform through Facebook Business Tools.” In other words, Facebook spies on people who don’t even use Facebook.
NBC’s Dylan Byers recently published an anonymously sourced complaint that Facebook executives “are fed up with The New York Times after weeks of what they see as overtly antagonistic coverage that betrays an anti-Facebook bias.” Yet not only did Byers fail to identify any inaccuracies in the Times’ reporting; he didn’t even manage to get a single on-the-record response from the company.
Perhaps Facebook executives have grown sheepish because they’ve been caught lying so frequently. In the company’s early days, Zuckerberg explained that his credo was to, “like, make things happen and then, like, apologize later.” While it’s true that Facebook apologizes for its missteps a lot, sometimes it just lies. For instance, after the Times reported that Facebook had paid an opposition-research firm, Definers, to dig up negative information on the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg announced, “I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing.” Later, it emerged that Sandberg herself had ordered the investigation.
On other occasions, the company promises—really, really promises this time—to never do it again. In fact, Facebook seems to exercise little meaningful control over its own site, save perhaps for banning nudity. How else to explain that, after the massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, advertisers were allowed to target users who had an interest in “white genocide conspiracy theory”?
It’s not just Trump fans that Facebook indulges. According to journalist Maria Ressa, individuals associated with Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte use the site to send threatening messages, including one to her that read: “I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death.” And in Turkey, “Facebook removes everything and anything from their social media platform when the Turkish authorities ask them to do so,” according to Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Facebook has committed countless other sins. Those of us concerned about the collapse of journalism’s democracy-defending business model were not surprised to learn that Facebook misled media outlets about the number of views their videos were receiving. Remember when newspapers and magazines were “pivoting to video”? That costly pivot defenestrated many a publication—and yet the metrics driving those decisions were nonsense.
Finally (at least for now), The Wall Street Journal reported that right-wing efforts to work the refs have been so effective that Facebook appointed Joel Kaplan, a former George W. Bush adviser who threw a party for Brett Kavanaugh to celebrate his Supreme Court confirmation, as its conservative-ideology commissar. Kaplan recently killed a project called Common Ground, which would have encouraged civil discussion among users with different political beliefs—because, the Journal reported, he feared that it “could trigger claims of bias against conservatives.” With Zuckerberg’s backing, Kaplan also wanted to partner with the Trump-friendly propaganda rag The Daily Caller for Facebook’s anemic fact-checking system. (The company’s newsfeed, I’ve noted previously, is already loaded with Fox News’ dishonest programming.) Luckily, Kaplan lost that battle when the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, suspended its accreditation of the Caller’s fact-checking operation.
Kaplan also protects the likes of Trump and Breitbart from any interference on the site, regardless of how many lies they tell or racist insults they hurl. Facebook employees told the Journal that an initiative called Cross Check “contradicted Facebook’s efforts to limit the spread of misinformation and hate speech because flagged posts from those pages often didn’t come down.”
According to Josh Bolten, a former Bush chief of staff, Kaplan’s mandate at the company is to “demonstrate to people that Facebook is being fair,” because “a lot of people on the right are suspicious of most media outlets and social-media platforms.” Note the circular logic: The mere suspicion of anti-right-wing bias is used to ensure more right-wing programming, and each new win by the right ensures its increasingly ambitious demands. It’s hard to imagine an easier ref for conservatives to work than Zuckerberg and Facebook. Unfortunately, there’s never been a more effective means—or a more ominous political moment—to spread misinformation, disinformation, and incitements to violence.