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Facebook’s Promise of Community Is a Lie

Under increasing criticism for spreading fake news, the internet giant is using communitarianism as a shield.

David Ramos/Getty

Like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Mark Zuckerberg has learned to have regrets. Until very recently, the Facebook CEO wouldn’t have seen himself as a villain in a horror novel but rather the hero of a happier genre, a classic American rags-to-riches story in the tradition of Horatio Alger. From his dorm room in Harvard in 2004, Zuckerberg created the outstanding economic success story of our century—a social media giant that now has more than two billion active users and a capitalization of $445 billion. Even if you don’t like the site, it’s hard not to be awed by the scale of its reach, which is almost without parallel in human history. As Max Read notes in a recent survey of the internet leviathan in New York magazine, Facebook users represent “the single largest non-biologically sorted group of people on the planet after ‘Christians’—and, growing consistently at around 17 percent year after year, it could surpass that group before the end of 2017 and encompass one-third of the world’s population by this time next year.”

Yet as it continues on its path to world domination, Facebook finds itself increasingly mired in political controversy—a fate it shares with other mammoth internet platforms like Google and YouTube. During the 2016 election these internet brand names no longer seemed liked neutral venues for sharing ideas; rather, they became hothouses of fake news and propaganda. Social media in particular has played a pivotal role in the still-developing story of Russian interference in 2016 presidential balloting. The latest revelations in that scandal indicate that Russian-linked anti-Clinton ads harnessed a Facebook micro-targeting feature to home in on key voters in the swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin.

Yet even before the specter of foreign electoral hacking surfaced on the site, critics have long pointed to another civic bug of our Facebooked lives: the self-reinforcing character of the site’s news feeds. By swamping users’ accounts with content tailored to their past browsing habits, Facebook has gradually come to quarantine users in news bubbles of their own making. And there’s no incentive for Facebook to puncture those bubbles, given the wider monopoly structure of the tech economy, liberal critics have argued. “Our lives are increasingly dominated by a series of big companies that have achieved something close to the state of monopoly,” former New Republic editor Franklin Foer explained recently in an interview for Slate. Foer noted that even politicians who have been traditionally friendly with big business, like New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, are now increasingly critical of the tech giants on the grounds that the logic of their business models distort and stunt our democracy.

Indeed, Facebook’s maximum leader has begun to register this critique in his own public statements—albeit in his own stunted and distorted way. In his 2017 message carrying his resolution for the new year, Zuckerberg acknowledged the mounting sense that Facebook is no longer purely a force for good. “For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected,” he wrote. “This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.”

Like many of Zuckerberg’s statements, this was bewilderingly vague—a sign, perhaps, of the great social-media impresario’s near-total detachment from the conditions of public life in twenty-first-century America. In what sense is globalization a “game,” exactly—and who’s chiefly benefitting from all these storied gains in productivity and connectivity?

It’s clearly not within the reach of Zuckerberg’s own internal algorithm to wrestle such questions to the ground. Still, the statement did at least mark a telltale pivot away from the site’s native argot of technological utopianism, which continually worked to present itself as a neutral platform that more or less spontaneously brought the world together. Like the legendary Coca-Cola ad from 1971, with the dream that “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company,” Facebook was selling the promise of creating new human fellowship, on a staggering new scale.

But as Zuckerberg then noted, the dread notion of “division” is the unwelcome human disruption in this vision of a placidly empowered new world tech order. So lately Zuckerberg has revamped his own depiction of the ideal-type Facebook interaction, supplanting the older notion of “connection” with a newer emphasis on “community.” In February, Zuckerberg released a manifesto, grandly titled “Building Global Community.” Now the word went forth that “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.”

At first glance, “community” may not seem all that dramatic a departure from “connectivity.” Both are blandly agreeable social goods, and the distinction between them may strike us as roughly akin to the difference between buying the world a Coke and joining the Pepsi generation. But as Max Read notes, the use of the language of community actually marks a major shift in Facebook’s corporate image of itself—a move away from technological neutrality toward the more stubborn complexity of human values:

Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and Zuckerberg’s former speechwriter, told me she thought it represented a serious transformation of the company’s purpose. “The early days were so neutral that it was almost weird,” she said. The first statement of purpose she could remember was a thing Zuckerberg would say at product meetings: “I just want to create information flow.” Now he was speaking of “collective values for what should and should not be allowed.” “It’s very interesting that the community language is finally being brought in,” Losse said. “ ‘Community’ is, like, a church —it’s a social structure with values.”

Zuckerberg is also taking his flirtation with communitarian values on the road, via his famed listening tour across America, which has prompted some pundits to speculate that, in search of fresh worlds to conquer, Zuckerberg may be pondering a 2020 presidential run.

It’s clear, at any rate, that Zuckerberg has adopted communitarian language to give his empire a political makeover. Communitarian rhetoric is a shrewd way to pre-empt the rising tide of anti-Facebook sentiment by crafting a wholesome corporate mission that almost anyone can agree with at some level.

Part of the beauty of communitarian discourse is that it is genuinely bipartisan, appealing in nearly equal measure to the right and left. Conservatives celebrate a long tradition, going back at least to Edmund Burke, of marshaling “the little platoons” of civic society as a bulwark against the centralizing impulses of the state. Leftists and liberals, meanwhile, often hark back to their own participatory politics, founded upon the civic advocacy of grassroots organizations, such as unions and civil rights groups, as the engines for political change and democracy.

All of this admirably serves the aims of Facebook’s rebranding initiative: Who can be a serious foe of “community,” in any of its guises? But on closer examination, we have ample reasons to be skeptical of this communitarian cant.

For one thing, Facebook’s main mission in life is not fostering community but making money. As John Lancaster argued in a recent article in the London Review of Books, Facebook’s business model is about remorselessly monetizing the trust people have (often unwittingly) placed in the platform as a repository of their consumer data. “The solution [to Facebook’s monetization problem] was to take the huge amount of information Facebook has about its ‘community’ and use it to let advertisers target ads with a specificity never known before,” Lancaster notes. “What that means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.”

If we keep in mind Facebook’s surveillance power, then the metaphor of community becomes a good deal less benign. After all, as long as we’ve hymned the allure of community, there have been two diametrically opposed visions of what communal life is actually like. There is, on the one hand, the positive vision of small-town life as a place of warmth, fellowship, and co-operation, as seen in the paintings of Norman Rockwell or the films of Frank Capra. But we’ve also long reckoned with a bleaker view of things—the notion that small towns are stultifyingly conformist and small-minded, because they allow for no privacy or independent thought. In Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—to name just two famous literary examples of this critique—the communal spirit serves as a byword for provincialism, and bigotry.

And, curiously enough, that’s precisely the question that haunts Facebook today: Does it promote community or tribalism? And is the site’s version of “community” so beholden to the forces of market surveillance that it renders communal participation a dead letter to anyone other than big-ticket advertisers? Zuckerberg’s recourse to communitarian discourse is a way to preclude these questions from being asked, to provide an answer to what is still very much an open question.

To begin seriously reckoning with such unasked questions, we would do well to examine the liberal tradition’s own internal debates over communitarian values. American liberals has always valued community—while also recognizing that it often exists in tension with other important values, notably equality and liberty. When, for example, white supremacists and homophobes rely on the rhetoric of community to defend Jim Crow segregation or gay marriage bans, liberals have rightly said that not all communal norms are absolute. To treat community as a value in and of itself is to ignore the particular ways in which belonging to a specific community constitutes a political benefit—or harm. Membership in a union is very different than membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

By failing to attend to any of these distinctions, Zuckerberg’s new communitarian language is as vacuous as his old talk of connectivity. It’s an attempt to offer a neutral solution to problems that humans have always had to thrash out in political conflicts.

It’s disheartening, but not all that surprising, to see that Zuckerberg cannot be shaken from the bedrock conviction that there has to be a technocratic solution to the age-old dilemma of reconciling community with individual rights. In his “Building Global Community” manifesto, he writes, “The guiding principles are that the Community Standards should reflect the cultural norms of our community, that each person should see as little objectionable content as possible, and each person should be able to share what they want while being told they cannot share something as little as possible. The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them.” Unfortunately, the “large-scale democratic process” Zuckerberg has in mind is simply people voting on Facebook.

The idea that AI and voting on Facebook can solve the problems that Facebook is causing is absurd. It’s a way of saying the solution to Facebook is more Facebook. Behind all the feel-good rhetorical evocations of community that now are billowing out from the Facebook mother ship is the same old problem that has dogged American democracy since the dawn of the industrial age: A corporate giant is refusing scrutiny from the only real democratic force that might restrain it—an elected government. And to begin facing down that threat, we don’t need connectivity, community, or other warm and fuzzy nostrums from civic ages past. We need politics.