Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign Should Abandon Facebook Altogether
The senator is trolling Facebook, but would she send a louder message by abandoning the platform altogether?
Over the weekend, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign paid for an ad that falsely claimed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Donald Trump for reelection. The idea was to show how easily candidates can spread misinformation on the platform. But the candidate might send a stronger message by laying off the ads and abandoning Facebook altogether.
While Warren’s tactic worked to generate viral attention on social networks and broadcast media coverage, it does not change the larger political economy or the rules of the platform. Rather, it enforces them. That’s why Facebook tweeted at Warren that, like FCC-approved political ads that air on television, the platform prefers to let people, and not companies, determine the truth of political advertisements for themselves. As long as politicians pay for advertisements on Facebook, the company is happy to absolve itself of responsibility for everything that happens as a result. People are not at the center of Facebook’s value system — profits are.
This is why Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook employees that he’d go to the mat and fight Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up big tech companies if she is elected president. Warren’s plan would “suck” for Facebook, as Zuckerberg himself said. It would mean designating Facebook and all technology companies with greater than $25 billion in global revenue as platform utilities. That means Facebook would no longer be allowed to own both the marketplace and the users. Further, it would not be allowed to share user data with third parties. Facebook’s ad revenue exceeded $55 billion in 2018. Warren’s plan would make the platform much less attractive to advertisers and threaten Facebook’s bottom line.
More daunting for Facebook is Warren’s plan to appoint federal regulators who would break up technology mergers in order to increase competition, meaning Facebook would be separated from Instagram and WhatsApp. Sensing a growing animus toward technology companies, Facebook earlier this year announced plans to integrate Facebook Messenger with Instagram and WhatsApp, merging the software of all three apps and allowing users to communicate across platforms. This plan will make it more complicated for regulators to separate the platforms, because the divisions between applications will be less distinct. It won’t be easy to cut off communications services between multiple parties when convenient methods have already been established.
Warren’s Facebook ad spend endorses a platform that does not care about preserving democracy, the truth, or people in general.
Abandoning Facebook altogether may seem extreme, especially because Warren’s reach on the platform is significant. Warren’s Facebook page is liked by 3.3 million users; her Instagram account has 2 million followers. Losing access to that audience would be difficult to overcome at first but would ultimately create a new opportunity for Warren and other politicians to try to break free of Facebook’s viselike grip and develop their own systems outside of Facebook’s sphere of power. Challenging dominant platforms is not easy, but Warren’s plan against big tech uniquely situates her to leave Facebook until it’s either regulated or develops and enforces better systems that put people first. Boycotting unfair systems until they are made fair for the people is one of the boldest stances a politician can make.
The alternative argument in favor of keeping Warren’s Facebook accounts to reach captive audiences is the same one that keeps Facebook powerful in general: The hegemony of the platform gives us a collective form of Stockholm syndrome. Forty-three percent of Americans say they get news from Facebook, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2018. We know Facebook is bad for us, but those who continue to use it and pay for ads on the platform explicitly endorse its practices. Warren alone has spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since May 2018, but she won’t be able to take down the tech giant from within the confines of its own systems.
Warren’s Facebook ad spend endorses a platform that does not care about preserving democracy, the truth, or people in general. Facebook, which has been subject to critical backlash in the wake of its role in global elections and privacy hacks worldwide, tried to reframe itself as a privacy-focused technology company. Not only does Facebook continue to show its vulnerability — as it did when 540 million users’ data was exposed earlier this year — but its advertising policies show no moral imperative to protect people against the dangers of misinformation.
Facebook has no interest in promoting truth. Truth does not intrinsically keep people engaged. A 2014 study conducted by researchers at Ithaca University revealed that Facebook’s newsfeed promotes emotional contagion. When Facebook shows people emotionally provocative content, those users are more likely to stay engaged with the platform. This means spending more time on the Facebook news feed, commenting on other people’s status updates, and sharing their own status updates — all in the name of making people act in a more predictable manner to make them captive for advertisers and politicians to target.
Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, devised the “invisible hand” metaphor, which speaks to the invisible forces that control markets and help bring them to equilibrium. Although the rich are selfish, Smith argues, they “divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.” While Smith could grapple with the rationale for how governmental forces intervene in markets, he could not have foreseen how technology companies would create weapons for the invisible hand to yield. Algorithms are the psychologically coercive software that act as Facebook’s invisible weapons. They’ve helped Facebook generate billions of dollars in revenue at a time when inequality in the United States just reached its highest level in more than 50 years. They’ve been left unchecked for much too long.
The invisible hand and its weapons are not serving the interests of people. Warren’s plan helps to address important issues — but stepping away from the platform will grant Warren’s movement against big technology a greater measure of legitimacy while opening the door for others to follow suit.