By ERIC KLINENBERG
Saturday, September 15, 2018
Author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, from which this essay was adapted.
I n February, 2017, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a six-thousandword open letter on the site he created. It's addressed "To our community," and within a few sentences Mr. Zuckerberg asks his company's two billion or so users a straightforward question: "Are we building the world we all want?" The answer was self-evident.
If there's a core principle in Mr. Zuckerberg's worldview, it's that human beings make progress when we break down social and geographic divisions and form larger, more expansive moral communities. "History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers - from tribes to cities to nations," he claims. "At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own."
As chief executive of one of the world's most profitable and fastest-growing corporations, Mr.
Zuckerberg is generally cautious about making explicitly partisan statements. But in the 2016 campaign, he had denounced the "fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others," and a few weeks before posting his letter, he condemned U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order to ban immigrants from selected Middle Eastern countries: "We should ... keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help. That's who we are." Mr. Zuckerberg's letter, released during this unusually public conflict with the new President, was meant to be Facebook's new mission statement as well as its blueprint for how to rebuild society in a tumultuous, potentially authoritarian age.
"In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us," he explained. Facebook, as Mr. Zuckerberg sees it, is uniquely capable of bridging our social divisions.
He recognizes that, where they remain popular, churches, sports teams, unions and other civic groups deliver the social benefits that he wants Facebook to generate: "They provide all of us with a sense of purpose and hope; moral validation that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves; comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us; mentorship, guidance and personal development; a safety net; values, cultural norms and accountability; social gatherings, rituals and a way to meet new people; and a way to pass time."
Yet, he also argues that, in these dark times marked by the "striking decline" of group membership since the 1970s, "online communities are a bright spot."
At Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg writes, "our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community - for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all."
His first promise is that his team will develop better algorithms for predicting which kinds of "very meaningful" Facebook communities (those that "quickly become the most important part of our social network experience") would benefit its users, and to "help connect one billion people with meaningful communities, that can strengthen our social fabric." His second promise is to "expand groups to support sub-communities," people who care about the same sports teams, television shows, video games and the like. His third is to "reinforce our physical communities by bringing us together in person to support each other."
He tells readers how Facebook's social infrastructure will promote health and safety, and again it involves getting people to do more things online. Using artificial intelligence, the company will "help our community identify problems before they happen."
He says that Facebook has "built infrastructure to show Amber Alerts," that it has "built infrastructure to work with public safety organizations" and "built infrastructure like Safety Check so we can all let our friends know we're safe and check on friends who might be affected by an attack or natural disaster."
Mr. Zuckerberg wants to reinvigorate democracy. He sees Facebook as a tool for helping people vote, speak out and organize. He envisions it generating new ways for people around the world to participate in collective governance, new ways to achieve openness, transparency and, more ambitiously, a renewed commitment to the common good.
His rhetoric is as grandiose as we'd expect from a man whose company has billions of active users and a market value around US$500-billion. But the vision of social infrastructure that he endorses is flimsy.
Social media, for all their powers, cannot give us what we get from churches, unions, athletic clubs and welfare states. They are neither a safety net nor a gathering place.
The internet and social media have unquestionably made it easier to meet new people and maintain contact with friends and family. They allow us to share all kinds of information, from the most mundane to the most intimate, with huge numbers of people, in real time. Today, the internet is where North Americans are most likely to search for and find their spouse. It's where people go when they want to find out where to protest or rally. And, of course, it's where they go to post photographs of their children, their family vacation, their breakfast, themselves.
It's common, these days, to hear that the internet, and particularly social media, is making us lonelier and more isolated than ever. These claims may well feel true to those who long for simpler, happier times - but there's no good evidence that they're accurate. For most of us, Facebook friends and Instagram followers are supplements to - not surrogates for - our social lives. As meaningful as the friendships we establish online can be, most of us are unsatisfied with virtual ties that never develop into face-toface relationships. Building real connections requires a shared physical environment - a social infrastructure.
Unfortunately, as insider accounts from Silicon Valley tech companies have established, keeping people on their screens, rather than in the world of faceto-face interaction, is a key priority of designers and engineers at social-media outlets such as Facebook. Mr. Zuckerberg, in other words, is not promoting real social infrastructure, but a communications system that makes it harder for most of us to be fully present and engaged with the people we're spending time with in real life.
Facebook can, and occasionally does, help us find people with whom we build relationships in real life, and perhaps someday it will improve. In early 2018, Mr.
Zuckerberg posted an acknowledgment that Facebook "is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other," and he pledged to change the site even if it meant that "the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down." But no matter how the site's designers tweak Facebook content, the human connections we need to escape danger, establish trust and rebuild society require recurrent social interaction in physical places, not pokes and likes with "friends" online.
It is disingenuous for Mr. Zuckerberg to claim that Facebook, like the social organizations that he sees declining, promotes the kinds of values, cultural norms and systems of accountability that democracy requires. Because, when Mr. Zuckerberg wrote his open letter, he already knew what Facebook would not acknowledge until the U.S. Congress effectively forced a confession: During the most divisive and consequential presidential election in recent history, Russian propagandists had used Mr.
Zuckerberg's so-called social infrastructure to buy more than three thousand fake news ads that reached at least 10 million people.
Thanks to Facebook's technology, the Russians - as well as altright organizations intent on spreading misinformation inside the United States - could target their campaign to swing-state voters. The organizations behind these ads did not merely want to manipulate citizens and suppress turnout in communities likely to support the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. They also aimed to sow social divisions that would undermine Americans' faith in democracy, and - as recent reporting has established - they made similar efforts to wreak havoc in open societies around the world. Facebook, whose algorithms amplify extreme, emotional messages that stoke polarization and downplay more nuanced, deliberative posts, is ideally suited for the job.
Since the 2016 election, Facebook and other tech companies have made major investments in a lobbying campaign to stave off regulations that would require them to disclose who is purchasing political advertising.
Mr. Zuckerberg's team has portrayed the Russians' ability to manipulate social media for their political project as a technical problem that can be fixed with engineering.
More fundamentally, however, the election and the subsequent congressional hearings with high-tech leaders revealed that the companies that manage large-scale, for-profit communications infrastructures are set up to prioritize generating revenue above delivering public goods.
Publicly traded corporations, including Facebook, are legally required to maximize shareholder value, and while some CEOs define value expansively, most focus on the bottom line.
Mr. Zuckerberg surely didn't want his company to facilitate malevolent intervention into the democratic process; and yet, as investigative reporters discovered, Facebook's advertising salespeople and engineers made great efforts to help domestic political-advocacy groups, including the anti-Clinton, anti-Islam organization Secure America Now, reach their targeted audiences. No matter their political preferences, Facebook employees had a simple reason for doing this: Winning advertisers is their job. Promoting democracy isn't.
During the 2016 campaign, Facebook made a negligible profit from accepting paid political ads from groups associated with the Russian government and the far-right. American democracy, and the global community that Mr. Zuckerberg says he is committed to building, suffered a devastating loss.
Now we are less than two months from another set of consequential elections, and many believe that nothing less than the future of American democracy is at stake. Once again, Russian agents are using Facebook and other social media to influence the election, targeting propaganda and misinformation to voters in pivotal districts and states.
This time, under intense scrutiny from regulators, Facebook is doing more to monitor and shut down those who exploit its technology to thwart the political process. But the disturbing truth is that Mr. Zuckerberg, while trying to engineer a social infrastructure, has instead created a powerful tool for subverting democracy, in the United States and around the world.
It's time for the world's democratic leaders to fight back.
Reprinted from Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg.
Copyright © 2018 by Eric Klinenberg. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL. SOURCE IMAGES: ISTOCK