The Conversation We Need About Facebookistan

Nearly 11 years ago, Facebook took a giant step toward becoming the global social networking behemoth that it is today. It launched “Facebook Platform,” opening itself up and inviting outside software developers to create their own inventive applications running on top of the company’s trove of user data, and letting them earn ad revenue on those apps to boot. Soon, a whole ecosystem of services and games grew up inside and around the site. For tech industry insiders, it was the moment when Facebook really started to grow up and demonstrate its potential.

At the time, at techPresident, our old group blog and news site, we noticed something unusual. Among the many commercial apps showcased by Mark Zuckerberg at Platform’s launch, there was just one from a presidential campaign, that of then-upstart Barack Obama. It was a nifty tool, allowing Facebook users to see new videos and messages pushed out by the campaign and then share them with their friends.

But we wondered, why was Obama the only candidate with a Facebook app up the day Platform launched? Were other campaigns offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor? If not, did the campaign benefit from inside information? Was this, in effect, an in-kind contribution from Facebook to Obama, and if so, didn’t it deserve scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission? At the time, Facebook had 20 million members and was growing at the rate of 150,000 a day.

Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s co-founders, had started working for the Obama campaign earlier that year, and was still serving as a consultant to Facebook at the time, according to press reports. At techPresident, we called around and none of the other presidential campaigns—all of whom were also experimenting with their own Facebook and MySpace pages as well as YouTube channels—told us they knew anything about Platform until its unveiling that late May day. At the same time, it wasn’t a secret that Facebook had already quietly opened up its application programming interface months earlier; the fact that Hughes was savvy to the opportunity only proved that the Obama campaign was smart to have hired him.

Still, we wrote an editorial asking if Facebook played favorites with Obama and suggesting that it was high time we focused on the power of online platform companies to influence the political process. The issue, of course, went nowhere. Facebook soon announced that would be building a special section of the site devoted to “US Politics” and used the Obama app to convince other candidates and elected officials to build out their own corresponding presences inside the social network.

Five years later, I was invited by Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute and John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center to take part in some of the discussions of an expert group of academics who were looking at issues at the intersection of money and politics in the wake of the 2012 election. While the bulk of the group’s attention was focused on longstanding and unresolved debates, like the role of parties, the influence of donations on legislative outcomes and the degree to which small donors might be altering the political landscape, we did take up a terrific paper by Dave Karpf of GWU on the rising role of the internet in politics. I again raised my concerns about the potential for big platform companies like Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, to influence the process in hitherto unimaginable ways. And I described the 2007 episode with Obama’s Facebook app as a harbinger of what could happen.

I distinctly remember the academics in the room staring at me like I was speaking another language. The final report of the CFI’s working group, “An Agenda for Future Research on Money in Politics in the United States,” delivered at the fall 2013 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, makes spare mention of the role of the internet, mainly speculating that the emerging role of big data in targeting voters might help revive the role of the national parties as curators of that data.

Talk about fighting the last war.

We now know that platform monopolies like Facebook have tremendous powers to influence behavior, from altering our moods to increasing voter turnout. And, we know that these companies are also not immune to political winds. In 2012, as in the previous presidential cycle, Facebook tilted Democratic. Its engineers saw that the Obama campaign was harvesting gobs of data about all its adult American users (here are my screenshots on how that worked) and they looked the other way, because, as Carol Davidsen, the Obama campaign’s director of integration and data analytics recently put it, “they were on our side.” More recently in 2016, accused of deleting stories from some conservative outlets from its “Trending Topics” sidebar section, Facebook bent over backwards to let right-wing propaganda run rampant on the site. It’s not a hypothetical danger that Facebook might itself  skew politics in the future; it’s a reality that’s happened more than once.

Suddenly, because of the news that Cambridge Analytica harvested profile information on 50 million American Facebook users and allegedly used it to target and manipulate them on behalf of the Trump campaign, we are engaged in a national conversation about the role of Facebook in enabling this situation. We are pondering if it was a data breach worthy of scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, or, just as seriously, a breach of trust. Many of Facebook’s loyal users are talking of quitting, though many have no idea where to go that might be any different. Facebook’s stock is wobbling, and we are wondering if the “Boy King” who so notably told his coders to “move fast and break things,” and who has issued apology after apology for many previous violations of his users’ trust, can again survive another moment of national opprobrium.

This is not the conversation we need. It’s not enough to try to make advertising online more transparent, or to punish Facebook for violating its promises to protect user privacy. We need instead to ask why we have allowed so much of today’s public square to be run by private corporations. Before the rise of the internet and today’s social networking giants, when we went into the public square to speak and be heard, no one was taking our picture or recording our words. Nor were we all carrying around computers that captured and made visible our every movement. Democracy was something we did relatively freely, albeit with different levels of privileged speakers based on class, race, and gender.

I don’t want more promises from Mark Zuckerberg about how this time Facebook is really, really going to protect user privacy and build a true community for all. If you are paying attention, you should just laugh when he says this, and when other people parrot it or give this notion credence. Private businesses cannot be the basis for a public arena that genuinely serves and is accountable to all. That’s what “we the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” need government for.

Now we are all rats in a maze built by unaccountable wizards who answer only to venture capitalists. If we want a way out of this mess, it starts by recognizing that we have to remake the internet back into a public square owned by us.