Facebook’s co-founder Chris Hughes’ recent testimony against Mark Zuckerberg was revealing and very agreeable for anyone who is concerned with free speech and democracy. No corporation in history has had such a far reaching impact on global politics and a key role to play in the state of every nation. No person, as well, in history, has held such direct control over the world. No person and no corporation should either.
What is the most vital things in our lives? Some would say oxygen, some would say water or food, but without information one wouldn’t know about the vitality of either oxygen or water or food. Information is the most vital thing in our lives, it always has been. Only since the onset of the 21st century has this fifth factor of production gained immense traction amongst corporations, governments and even people. Even football clubs win matches by following patterns and attacking their rivals’ patterns by relying on data. If you think sports was the last place where you’d ever expect predictability, you are already wrong and far lagging behind in what data can do and is doing.
Facebook along with its over 2 billion users, owns other indispensable platforms such as WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, shooting up its total user base to almost 5 billion worldwide, which is almost the entire world. While that is an impressive outreach and success for a single corporation and for a businessman who hasn’t even reached his 40s, it surely is menacing all the more. And the greatest menace that Facebook is causing to, is the very core values that Mark Zuckerberg cherishes and strives to protect – values of liberalism and of democracy. But can Facebook save democracy from democracy itself?
For all the arguments that the left puts up against a corporation such as Facebook, at least the economic ones, the left fails to see a very crucial contribution that Facebook has made to democracy. Facebook has radically changed the landscape of democracy, creating a virtual townhall for people to discuss issues, debate issues, to enabling people to live in a global village. If Facebook isn’t peak globalization and peak democracy I don’t know what else is. Just think of all the revolutions that Facebook and its subsidiaries have brought about, and you’ll have your answer. If we’re talking about anarchic direct democracy, Facebook has brought us to it. But the same has had serious political consequences around the world and for democracy itself.
With the rise of global far right populism, one cannot ignore the role that social media and especially platforms like Facebook have played in the same. On social media it doesn’t matter if you’re right or if you actually make logical sense, what matters is if you can connect with the people’s hearts and minds, if you can tap into their deepest fears and maybe even inhumanity (seldom humanity) in that instant. If you can, you are the king or queen of this masturbatory democracy. The social division that social media has been responsible for, in recent times has been startling. It is almost impossible to have a sensible and civil debate on social media without a liberal resorting to the ‘Hitler example’ and a conservative crying for his free speech. If we are singularly blaming right wing leaders and their far right parties for the rise of social division across the world, we’re completely missing the point of how social media paved the way for that division in that first place. Adding to people’s disharmonious engagement on social media, news outlets have been no less in exploiting people’s divisions – you can go onto YouTube and see multiple fringe videos of “Jordan Peterson destroys a Feminazi” to “Ben Shapiro destroys snowflake SJW”, not to mention Shapiro’s very feisty DailyWire headlines which give even Brietbart a run for their money. This is obviously not to ignore the liberal’s hysterical antics over social media, calling out people for saying something they don’t approve of, or for sharing jokes they don’t find funny.
But does all this shouting and screaming lead anywhere? Yes, it does, fortunately and unfortunately. Fortunately because social media has given a voice to people across all classes of society which has helped bring forth many revolutions in the past. Unfortunately because democracy has been reduced to populism and leaders to how popular one can get with one’s post. Let us not be mistaken with what happened in the 2019 Indian elections. Modi won not because of his policies or his work but only because he was more popular over social media and he echoed with the majority of Indians using social media.
Zuckerberg holds 60% of voting share on the Facebook board which basically makes the executive board an advisory board, which means that he has the major say on whatever happens and how it happens in the company and to its users. He has some dissenting voices within the company itself such as Peter Thiel, who has been a controversial CEO himself, and Zuckerberg himself has been for long leaning towards an absolutist freedom of speech standard, starting from his support of Charlie Hebdo to his recent take on how to tackle harmful content on social media. As a Jew himself, he has been vocally supportive of the right to deny the holocaust which is the farthest that the real liberals are willing to take their freedom of speech and that is appreciable, given that he understands that free speech includes the right to offend as well. However, the fact still remains that Zuckerberg is still responsible for the free speech of almost the entire world. Now that is not a responsibility that should be on just one person and it can definitely not be the right of any one person to hold so much power over the entire world.
The world is increasingly turning towards social media for their daily news. Maybe in another 20 years, televisions will become obsolete. You already have reputed news outlets (at least in the West) putting out subscription rates for its readers on the Internet, departing from the open-access culture because they know that culture won’t be sustainable and that the world of print media is dying very soon as well. You also have news outlets putting out news in the form of videos over social media, because they realise that if the newspaper has moved into the newsfeed of someone, so must the television.
William Randolph Hearst once famously told one of his correspondents that “you get me the photos, I’ll get you a war”. Media moguls had immense power previously, but now everyone, even Rupert Murdoch must channel his news through social media. That is how centralised the world’s information has become and that is how dangerous this kind of power is. If you’ve had any illusions about the most powerful person in the world as of now, don’t, because it’s Mark Zuckerberg. After all, he who controls information controls the world. But can Citizen Zuck save democracy from the democracy he has given to the world?
Swagat Baruah is write/editor for Catharsis Magazine