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Understanding What’s Wrong With Facebook

The Facebook login screen is seen in this photo illustration on March 13, 2019 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto)
The Facebook login screen is seen in this photo illustration on March 13, 2019 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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September 18, 2020 12:35 p.m.

We are now back in one of those recurrent waves of bad publicity for Facebook. It deserves every bit of it. Facebook is the prime online, global incubator of racist, quasi-fascist propaganda, conspiracy theories, state-run psyops and agit-prop operations, even in at least one case actual state-backed programs of population transfer and arguable genocide. But to really understand the problem with Facebook we need to understand the structural roots of that problem, how much of it is baked into the core architecture of the site and its very business model. Indeed much of it is inherent in the core strategies of the post-2000, second wave Internet tech companies that now dominate our information space and economy.

Facebook is an ingenious engine for information and ideational manipulation. Good old fashioned advertising does that to a degree. But Facebook is much more powerful, adaptive and efficient. That’s what all the algorithms do. That’s why it makes so much money. This is the error with people who say the fact that people do bad things with Facebook is no different from people doing bad things with phones. Facebook isn’t just a ‘dumb’ communications system. It’s not really a platform in the original sense of the word. (The analogy for that is web hosting.) Facebook is designed to do specific things. It’s an engine to understand people’s minds and then manipulate their thinking. Those tools are refined for revenue making but can be used for many other purposes. That makes it ripe for misuse and bad acting.

The core of all second wave Internet commerce operations was finding network models where costs grow mathematically and revenues grow exponentially. The network and its dominance is the product and once it takes hold the cost inputs remained constrained while the revenues grow almost without limit. With the possible exception of Apple, which is still driven mostly by the production of physical products, that’s the core feature of all the big tech Goliaths.

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