The corporate media punditry for the most part is sold on the idea that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Senate and House committees over the last two days was a big victory for him and his company.
That may be the case, but it’s a big loss for the country.
I don’t want to reduce the pundits’ commentary too much, but much of it was based on the facts that Zuckerberg wore a dark suit instead of his trademark jeans and t-shirt, answered questions respectfully, said he was sorry and was going to do a better job, and proved, beyond a doubt once again, that some of our lawmakers just don’t understand much about social media and the Internet in general even though they obviously think they do.
Thus, as an example of the last point, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch seemed to not know that Facebook makes its money by selling ads or maybe he did but simply didn’t possess the technology linguistic skills to make his question clear. Yet to be fair some lawmakers—certainly not enough—did make salient points about how terrorists and unidentified political manipulators have used the Facebook for nefarious purposes that threaten democracy.
The basic mainstream media response to Zuckerberg’s testimony, which came after Cambridge Analytica easily downloaded Facebook data to help elect Donald Trump as president, missed the mark in crucial ways. Below are just three points the 33-year-old technological whiz kid stressed that didn’t get the scrutiny it deserved.
Closer Together Zuckerberg ssid so many times that the Facebook mission was to “bring the world closer together,” or some version of that, that it became, for me at least, an Orwellian-like slogan with fascist overtones. I realize the word fascism, under the Trump presidency, is getting used a lot these days, but Zuckerberg’s constant repetition of the refrain gave it an eerie Big-Brother quality and his refusal to simply concede openly that Facebook exists to make money made it The Big Lie. What’s Zuckerberg and Facebook going to do with the world once it’s all brought together under one platform? The idea that money is somehow secondary to the mission of Facebook is ludicrous, just another corporate deflection. For the record, Facebook deploys personal data to micro-target its users for advertising that generates billions of dollars of year in revenues. That is why it exists.
AI Will Change Everything. Zuckerberg also repeatedly depicted an idealistic future in which artificial intelligence or AI will be able to ferret out bad actors with nefarious purposes. In other words, problem solved because who needs people anyway! Yet such intelligence would have to encompass dozen of languages and understand instances of nuances and irony in dozens of language, and there will be plenty of time to exploit the system before that might even happen. More importantly, just as “bringing the world together” on Facebook is countered by the way it is now used by users sowing divisiveness and discord so can well-intentioned AI tools be countered by oppositional AI tools. That’s a given. That doesn’t even take into account what can’t even be imagined at this point for AI and just technology in general. We would be fools if we didn’t accept, at this point, that hacks and potential misuse of all data collected on the Internet, are a permanent part of our lives.
Advancement Not Dependency Some lawmakers brought up the point of the dependency created by Internet platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, but Zuckerberg’s rosy view of his platform makes him an absolute unreliable narrator on this point. Zuckerberg, as we can gather from his overall comments, sees this dependence as something not only positive—and, sure, it’s a lot easier paying bills online than using paper—but also something natural and evolutionary, a great socio-cultural innovation. This misses the point. If we can’t use these new “natural” tools, if they create unacceptable risks to our personal safety and political systems, then they aren’t natural at all. The bad, to put it in simple terms, outweighs the good. If Facebook leads to the demise of democracy, then it isn’t a system with value, much less natural, just like if your money is constantly stolen online through your bank account.
I listened to or watched more than three of hours of the testimony over two days. Only once did I hear a lawmaker bring up the inane and dumbed-down content on Facebook, and this was framed by referring to studies that showed the passive overuse of Facebook has a relationship with mental illness. Zuckerberg issued a typical robotic response about how the user experience needs to be improved, and he was soon talking again about human connections, “community” and the organic inevitably of Facebook’s existence.
Zuckerberg also blew off U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham’s important question about whether the Facebook CEO thought his company was monopoly, which it is. It’s so big, in fact, it even buys out any and all competition that threatens it financially and will continue to do so. What’s worse is the company is built in many respect on the cult surrounding its founder. What’s even more worse is that so many corporate media pundits seem to buy into the cult of Zuckerberg as well. Much will continue to go wrong in our world, including the 2018 elections, unless this changes.