Facebook is beyond repair,
it should be dismantled.

November 2021
- Opinion -

Whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified before the US Congress and the European Parliament, has given a strong and credible voice to what has long been known:  

  • Facebook prioritises profits over protecting its users. 

  • The company's array of algorithms is designed to incentivise outrage and fury 

  • The company's management has been in active denial, burying damning internal research on the toxicity of its services, and cutting off access to university researchers who dissect Facebook's data.  

  • The artificial intelligence that FB puts forward to fight hateful content is mostly calibrated to preserve the revenue model based on the intensity of exchanges multiplied by their speed of circulation (called engagement).

 

For more details, see Frances Haugen's opening statement to Congress, her interview for 60 Minutes, or the Wall Street Journal's Facebook Files ($).  

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No one can genuinely ignore Facebook’s toxicity any longer.
Now, what to do, in the short and medium term?  

Based on the profound nature of Facebook's ills, the company is beyond repair: 

  • The vitality of its business is essentially based on the monetisation of the company's vices, civilising the platform would destroy its profitability.  

  • The current management, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, have demonstrated their unwillingness to tackle the problem.   

  • Their board won’t oust them due to the company's staggering financial performance: over $100 billion in revenue over the last 12 months for a 43% operating margin.

 

Mark Zuckerberg’s position is technically rock solid: although he only holds 14% of the company's equity, he controls 60% of the voting rights thanks to his preferred shares. As for removing his number two Sheryl Sandberg, it is unthinkable to sacrifice such a visible icon of the promotion of women in tech.  

Preferential voting rights are on the rise in Silicon Valley: in 1980, only 1.4% of IPOs included a dual class of shares; in 2004, the proportion rose to 7.5%; in 2020, dual-class structures accounted for 20% of all-sectors  IPOs but 43% of tech company listings. Today, the share is 29% of all and 46% of tech IPOs respectively.  It is safe to say that Silicon Valley is consistently sitting on shareholders' rights.       
 
Coming back to the subject, we can't use the radical solution of changing management - which we know is effective for unhealthy company cultures, such as Uber with Dara Khosrowshahi, who has cleaned up well Travis Kalanick's legacy mess     .  
 
We can't inject a dose of T61 into the Doberman Facebook either. Even China is using softer means to calm down an overly invasive tech.  

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Two possible routes remain: 

  • In the short term, Facebook must be forced to be transparent: share its internal research and reopen access to scholars. This openess had been removed in the name — no joke — of protecting Facebook users. Nate Perslily, a law professor at Stanford, believes that this access is essential. He has even drafted a bill, the Platform Transparency and Accountability Act. Persily believes that, far worse than their economic domination, platforms now have an absolute monopoly on data collection, and therefore on the ability to understand society. Secondarily, academic work could prove a valuable tool in the search for policy solutions.

  • In the longer run, regulators must put an end to the monetisation of engagement. This should not be confused with the monetisation of audience — which is what an online media or TV channel does. 

We could therefore consider a legislation regulating the harmful mechanics of engagement, in the same way that certain commercial practices are limited. This could be done through a series of measures aimed at slowing down the velocity of exchanges, such as the size of FB groups, or the flow of the comments fire hose. It would be enough to play on a few parameters of this type to considerably reduce the power of Facebook. 

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At this point, the issue is the ability of regulators to take action, their understanding of the true toxicity of FB, and their ability to work together to correct these deviances.

With the Biden administration, Europe has a window of opportunity to launch a legislative effort that can only succeed if it is multilateral and coherent. Is this happening? No. Commissioners prefer so far to make bold announcements about the standardisation of mobile phones adaptors.

Frédéric Filloux, Editor, JEDI Episodiqu.es
episodiques@jedi.foundation