I have been doing a lot of thinking about social media over the years. For a variety of reasons, I have concluded that social media is bad for society and bad for people. This post is not about that, although that is a very important thing to write about, too. Instead, I’d like to contemplate the issue of monopolies as they relate to social media.
My pro-free enterprise beliefs prevent me from ever looking kindly on government intrusion on businesses. On the other hand, my beliefs also include a core republican (small ‘r’) element to them, too. In other words, I believe there is an appropriate role for government (small ‘g’). Unfortunately, because of the nature of government–that is, because of the nature of people–governments almost always move beyond what is appropriate. Still, in theory, government is good and appropriate provided it stays in its lane and knows its place.
Choosing winners and losers is not a good and appropriate role for government. Establishing baseline legal infrastructure and enforcing freely made contracts is, to some degree at least, a good and appropriate role. Such measures do not choose winners and losers. Rather, they provide the boundaries of the field of contest, make it clear what the rules of the ‘game’ are, and then make sure all the parties abide by those rules.
To be clear, in saying such things are ‘good and appropriate’ I am not saying ‘necessary.’ I also think that it is ‘good and appropriate’ for governments to build roads, but I don’t buy the line that only governments are able to build roads. Pretty much everything that people say we need government for are things we could get by just fine if governments weren’t involved at all.
Within the parameters of a ‘playing field,’ where ‘teams’ are allowed to compete to the best of their ability according to the rules, fairly and justly enforced, it makes sense that some ‘teams’ are going to pull ahead of others. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as they did it fair and square.
But now we come to situations where the ‘team’ is so successful that it starts to scare people. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to social media, because on the one hand, they are private businesses, and I feel that if they are playing ‘fair and square’ then “hands off!” But on the other hand… are they actually playing ‘fair and square’? And even if they aren’t, is government involvement the answer? Why not let the free market take Twitter and Facebook down a notch?
This is probably a good time to start going over some of their many sins, but my interest level isn’t high enough to devote time and energy into that. At least not yet. Instead, let me propose that what has happened with the ‘big’ social media outfits is that they have, on their own volition, set themselves apart from being merely businesses and have inserted themselves directly into the fabric of our governance itself.
As someone who gets pretty pissy when government gets outside its lane, when social media itself assumes the role and function of government, and is afforded the same rights and privileges of government, and given the same power and authority as government, that is a big problem for me. Especially when there are no checks and balances. For a business, the most appropriate ‘check and balance’ are other businesses. But, in cases of monopolies, it is precisely the absence of other businesses who can provide that ‘check and balance’ that makes them worrisome. But have we ever had monopolies which also integrated itself into our public life to such a degree that it has the ability to dictate and determine government itself?
Like I said, Facebook, on its own volition, has stated it is in a different category now. The most recent example is in this article (the underlying source, unfortunately, is behind a paywall) where an attorney for Facebook says we do not have an expectation of privacy because:
He went on to say that Facebook is like a ‘digital town square’ and sharing anything with that public space forfeits your right to privacy.
Well, now. A ‘town square,’ you say?
For the sake of argument, we’ll accept the idea that if you share something in a public space, that forfeits your right to privacy. But is Facebook a public space?
Accepting for now their reasoning, let us consider the fact that most, if not all, ‘town squares’ are not owned by private entities, but are ‘owned’ by the public itself, via their local government. By their line of reasoning, anything that is permitted in ‘town squares’ must be permitted on their platforms. If a ‘town square’ is where people go to express their constitutionally protected speech as part of their constitutionally protected right to engage in self-governance, then if Facebook sees itself as a ‘town square’ then we must see it as an entity subject to public oversight. If it is a ‘town square’ it is not engaged in private behavior, it is behaving like a public utility. And a public utility of the worst kind: the one that has taken over even real town squares as the place where disagreements are hashed out, etc., with no other viable options for that discourse, and no public checks or balances on its decisions and conduct.
Though I haven’t studied monopolies in any great depth, it seems to me that although the break up of monopolies are sold to the public based on the idea of protecting the consumer, percolating underneath them is the fact that the companies themselves managed to tie themselves up so intimately with the government itself, that it was realized these companies were no longer behaving strictly as businesses, but, to some degree at least, as government itself. They could get away with that because they were protected by regulation, accompanied by the coercive powers of the state, which, by the by, ensured they were the only ones accessing those coercive powers of the state.
It is not just Facebook that is moving in this direction. Twitter, of course. But also Google, and to a lesser (but increasing) degree, Amazon. Amazon, for example, provides loads of server storage space to the Federal government (and state and local for all I know), intertwining itself, and thereby protecting itself. Google has been going crazy selling itself and its services to various government agencies.
But it is worse than all of that. These companies have chosen a specific side of the political spectrum and have been deliberately using their platforms to advance their political goals. Amazon, not so much, but then on the other hand, Bezos did purchase the Washington Post, which has discredited itself as a liberal mouthpiece as much as the New York Times has. Facebook and Twitter have been systematically silencing conservative voices on their platforms, with Google doing the same on Youtube; some of these de-platformings have been so fast and expansive, hitting people all at once on all three platforms at once, that it is highly implausible that they were not acting in concert with coordination.
If Facebook is the new ‘town square,’ that throws ‘Facebook jail’ into considerably new light, doesn’t it?
Now, there are certain things you can’t do in a town square, Constitution or no. On the other hand, the people managing the town square are A., not allowed to dictate or decide which Constitutionally protected speech will be allowed in the town square and B., subject to being removed from office is they use their privileged position to favor or disfavor speech. If you do something (presumed) naughty in a town square and are arrested, you do not lose your rights. The people involved in the arrest, from the police officer on up, are subject to public scrutiny, and public accountability.
Not so, ‘Facebook jail.’
If Facebook wants to be treated as though it were like a publicly owned public space for the purposes of its handling of privacy, it gives up the right to curtail Constitutionally protected speech that is always permitted in publicly owned public spaces.
But its even worse than that!
Thanks to all of this nonsense about ‘Trump collusion,’ we are told that the Russians tried to get him elected by engaging in a social media campaign, spending $160,000 on the effort. [None of the sample ads are in English, which gives some clue as to how effective their attempts were.] There is some caveat that this doesn’t include the ‘organic reach.’ Look, I, personally, have spent $10,000 on Facebook. I can assure you, for that amount of money I saw results that are far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, below anything that could be construed as ‘effective’ if directed towards influencing an election. BUT THE ORGANIC REACH!
From my own, direct experience and knowledge, I know that even if you multiply the results of my own spending and Facebook activities (and ORGANIC!) by 16, the idea that this influence operation had any real impact is laughable on its face. I mean, it may still be highly inappropriate, but you’d have to be seriously ill-informed, if not actually stupid, to think that regardless of presumed Russian intentions, they had any discernible ACTUAL impact. Personally, I find ads written in Russian very influential and persuasive, but I suspect most of my readers don’t.
[My $10,000 (advertising books, not influencing elections, lol) gives me some real world perspective, but for even better perspective, let’s set this $160,000 against how much Trump and Hillary themselves spent: $81,000,000. This does not even include spending by political action committees. BUT THE ORGANIC REACH. This is why I say you might actually be stupid if you think the Russians had a meaningful impact, even if they did what they were accused of doing. There is no way that $160,000, even with ORGANIC REACH! can swamp 81 fricken million dollars and its organic reach–and still does not include PAC spending. If you think that, you are either astonishingly dumb, hopelessly partisan, or your basic, generic tool.]
Where am I going with this?
Well, for a $160,000 spend, we were treated to a national nightmare for two years, and it was seriously and somberly maintained that a foreign country tried to influence America’s elections. In the meantime, the Clinton campaign had close ties with FACEBOOK ITSELF–a company valued at the time of this writing at $500,000,000,000.
Which is bigger? $500 billion or $81 million or $160 thousand? I know math is hard for some people so let me help you out:
Naturally, the close association between Facebook and Clinton and the Democrat party doesn’t get much attention by the MSM, because, of course, they are as intimately tied to the Democrats as the rest. Nonetheless, that information is out there. When we consider the ‘in kind’ donation of the services of a company valued at $500 billion to one particular political party, and think about what kind of weight THAT could have in ‘influencing elections,’ NOW we have something to worry about.
In a similar vein, we know that these associations have been going on for a long time. For example, we have known for a long time how intimately Google has worked with Democrats. In 2016, it was reported that Google reps had met with members of the Obama administration, in the White House, more than 400 times! Google (parent company, now, is called “Alphabet”) is worth almost a TRILLION dollars.
Would anyone like to calculate the value of the services rendered to Obama by a TRILLION dollar company?
Eric’s team is also developing products that are not, strictly speaking, critical for launch, but would be extremely useful to have as early in the cycle as possible. Chief among these is the system that consolidates data from disparate sources to allow you to develop more complete user profiles and therefore more effective programs.
Would anyone like to calculate the width and breadth of ‘influence’ brought to bear by marshaling the resources of a trillion dollar “Alphabet” and a half-trillion dollar Facebook?
Just what are these companies doing? Exactly what services are they offering?
The same memo offers some clues, and some timelines. I’ve emphasized a few parts:
Working relationships with Google, Facebook, Apple, and other technology companies were important to us in 2012 and should be even more important to you in 2016, given their still-ascendent positions in the culture. These partnerships can bring a range of
benefits to a campaign, from access to talent and prospective donors to early knowledge of beta products and invitations to participate in pilot programs. We have begun having discreet conversations with some of these companies to get a sense of their priorities for the coming
cycle, but would encourage you, as soon as your technology leadership is in place, to initiate more formal discussions.
THEIR priorities? Who is running this country, anyway? And as far back as 2012? Obama’s campaign? Say it ain’t so!
As an example of what a ‘working relationship’ might look like with Facebook, consider this jaw dropping admission by Carol Davidsen, a head honcho for Obama’s social media advertising department:
Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.
They came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.
Sounds to me like Facebook pro-actively, without solicitation, presented themselves for duty.
Then, there is this:
In 2011, Carol Davidsen, director of data integration and media analytics for Obama for America, built a database of every American voter using the same Facebook developer tool used by Cambridge, known as the social graph API. Any time people used Facebook’s log-in button to sign on to the campaign’s website, the Obama data scientists were able to access their profile as well as their friends’ information. That allowed them to chart the closeness of people’s relationships and make estimates about which people would be most likely to influence other people in their network to vote.
“We ingested the entire U.S. social graph,” Davidsen said in an interview. “We would ask permission to basically scrape your profile, and also scrape your friends, basically anything that was available to scrape. We scraped it all.”
That article says that the difference between Cambridge Analytical and the Obama administration is that CA did it without permission whereas the others did, and indeed, Davidsen makes it clear that they did get permission, but let’s repeat: “they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”
In other words, even if CA or some other outfits had sought permission, it would have been denied, but because it was OBAMA they allowed it.
But the Russians!
While it is true that I find this intimate association between the Democrats and big tech company to be very untoward, and I find it equally disgusting that liberals seem not to even know about this stuff, or care about it if they do (but the Russians!), I give these examples not because of the rank partisanship they illustrate but because of the intertwining with the GOVERNMENT they illustrate. It does not help at all that they have taken a side, banning from the ‘digital town hall’ the people they don’t like, ‘disappearing’ them digitally like the death squads of Central and South America ‘disappeared’ them physically. They are putting their big, heavy thumbs on the scales of governance itself.
It isn’t just that Google (for example) helps the Democrats analyze data when it does not do the same with Republicans, but that Google actually alters search results to help Democrats, silently impacting public opinion by bringing to bear the full weight of one of their core services: searching.
It is one thing for Ma Bell to own the entirety of the infrastructure, eg, owning every phone line in the country. It is another to prevent people with opinions they disagree about to share those opinions on the phone, just because they own the phone lines. It is still yet another if Ma Bell uses its phone system to intertwine itself with the functions of government. It is beyond even that if Ma Bell uses its system to favor one particular political persuasion within the government.
Google and Facebook are doing just that. Twitter and Amazon are not far behind. I have no idea what Apple is doing! (It was in the list of companies the Democrat tech dude says they are having ‘discreet’ conversations with).
So, as much as it pains me to involve the government in such affairs, it seems increasingly that it is going to have to. If Facebook is going to be a ‘digital town square’ then at the very least, we have to make sure there are many other ‘towns’ people can go to if they don’t like Facebook’s.
None of this will likely happen until liberals themselves start getting burned by de-platforming, etc. But if there is anything I know about liberals, is that eventually they get around to eating their own. Perhaps Bernie Sanders would like to look into whether or not Hillary’s alliances with social media did not only target Trump, but also him. My belief is that big tech is already ‘eating its own,’ but at this point rank partisanship has them befuddled by measly ad spends by the Russians, while several trillion dollars in ‘in kind’ services rendered is deployed, but in causes they support. These huge entities are choosing ‘winners and losers’ and its inevitable that one day, they will be the loser.
If it isn’t already too late by then, maybe on that day we can do what is necessary, starting with, I believe, breaking up the big tech monopolies.
Caveat: I’m still thinking through this issue. I reserve the right to change my mind or amend my position.