The Fake Facebook Scandal

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The Founding Fathers of the United States of America had a vision of an educated public kept informed by a vigilant, incisive press. If a crystal ball had granted them a vision of what the Fourth Estate has become nowadays, they'd have gone home, and we'd be paying taxes in pound sterling.

Case in point: the Facebook affair, a manufactured scandal that would make William Randolph Hearst and his anti-Spanish campaign look like pikers. Granted, we have seen quite a few artificial outbursts coming from a disarrayed press, but this one is rather peculiar and thus deserves a second look.

If a crystal ball had granted the Founding Fathers a vision of what the Fourth Estate has become nowadays, we'd still be paying taxes in pound sterling.

It is no mystery that Facebook painstakingly accumulates a detailed profile of every user. Their locations, habits, purchases, relationships, and opinions are carefully analyzed and stored. These data will then be sold to advertisers or marketers.

Collecting consumer data is not in itself a groundbreaking feature. Since the 1970s, such marketing data giants as Epsilon and Acxiom have made a fortune by collecting and analyzing our credit card purchases, travel habits, magazine subscriptions, and financial information. What Facebook brings is a very precise knowledge of its users, obtained by dissecting their posts, their "likes," and their friend lists. A fast, automated review of user profiles can easily establish their political leanings.

A.M.G. downloaded Facebook data on every American user — so much data that it triggered an alert in Facebook's monitoring system.

Like most companies collecting user data, Facebook exploits this information to sell ads and resell user data to third parties. In exchange for the free service, users click through a lengthy consent form and become the product that Facebook sells. Third-party companies purchasing user data are the actual Facebook customers. Facebook created and published an "API" (Application Programming Interface), a way for third-party programmers to query and receive Facebook user data — provided they pay.

From 2010 to 2015 or so, Facebook allowed customers using their API to download and keep user data. Many Facebook customers took advantage of the feature. Among these customers was the firm A.M.G., which worked for the 2012 Obama campaign to identify hesitant voters in swing states. A.M.G. downloaded Facebook data on every American user — so much data that it triggered an alert in Facebook's monitoring system. Facebook looked the other way and told the campaign it could go on until the election — which is not surprising, considering that Zuckerberg's company was, from the inception, militantly leftist.

Zuckerberg stooped to abject apologies for something that was done legally and publicly.

The 2016 Trump campaign hired a British data mining company, Cambridge Analytica, which also used Facebook user data. It remains to be seen how helpful this was. However, every anti-Trump activist can now blame Facebook for the election of Trump, who obviously — or so the "reasoning" goes — would not have been elected without the Facebook superpowers usurped by Cambridge Analytica. How did Zuckerberg, an irreproachable progressive until then, dare lend some of his divine grace to such a devil? Traitor! Have him drawn and quartered!

Thus the press suddenly turned against Facebook and its creator. The business-as-usual data sale was deemed a "breach" or a "leak," which is actually a redeeming wording, since it implies that Facebook's juicy data were not voluntarily sold to the Enemy.

In a sane world, Zuckerberg would have released an open letter to the press that would go like this:

Dear journalists,

Thank you for amply demonstrating why idiocy-uttering cannot be an Olympic discipline: the arena would simply be overcrowded by you cheap hacks vying for the gold.

The current topic of your inept blabber is the way the Trump campaign used Facebook data to produce targeted ads.

However, a simple foray into the archives of your own papers would show that not so long ago, you were swooning at the cleverness of the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook's technology to unceremoniously slurp the friend list of every American user. The campaign used these data to concoct ads and sway voters soured by Obama's first four years. Back then it was genius. Remember? Hey, I still have the message you sent to your friends recommending the raving article about A.M.G. Right above the pictures of this arugula salad you had for lunch.

Today, you pretend to blush and faint at the "revelation" that several companies, included one Cambridge Analytica, bought similar services and thus got similar info. I got news for you (I know, you aren't doing much of these anymore, nowadays — sorry for the discomfort). I didn't get filthy rich by letting Mrs. Smith upload pictures of little Timmy's pasta collage for his granny. I make money by accumulating detailed data about Timmy, his parents, his grandma, their freaking dog, and the whole entourage of this sadly ordinary family. Along with hundreds of millions of other working stiffs. Then I sold those data to anybody who happened to possess the requisite amount of cash and immorality. Talk to your publisher. See the Facebook button on the front page of your rag's web site? That's right: your employer is selling me data about your readers.

So lose the antics and get back to "reporting" about Russians and the NRA. Or I might follow the lead of my pal Bezos and buy a few of your outfits, replace you with a cheap guy on an H-1B, and make sure that the only job you'll ever find is cleaning spittoons.

Love and kisses,
Z.

Sadly, Mark Zuckerberg didn't write anything of the sort. To the contrary, he stooped to abject apologies for something that was done legally and publicly. He self-flagellated and accepted an imaginary complicity with the election of Trump, an act that makes him despised by his liberal pals grasping at straws to delegitimize the president.

Now, Zuckerberg might be a greedy sociopath and a cloying statist, but he is not an idiot. And he doesn't give off the martyr vibe, either. So what’s going on?

Like every good rentseeking statist, Zuckerberg is now turning to the force of government.

Let's go back to Timmy for a second. He is now 12 and developing new friendships. But Grandma has invaded his Facebook news feed with links to her bingo tournaments, and mom's friends' comments on his potty training are still visible to all in her history. There is no way he can use this trite, embarrassing channel to communicate with his cool preteen friends. And Timmy is not alone. According to market research company eMarketer, 5 to 10% of young users — from preteens to age 25 — are dropping off Facebook every year. Just when they are becoming juicy advertising targets. Not to mention the odd libertarian outraged by the company's shoddy practices and sneaky censorship.

So Zuckerberg needs to stop the user hemorrhage. He can take a risk and change the services and features offered by Facebook. He tried a few times, but these changes either backfired or failed to retain users.

Thus, like every good rentseeking statist, Zuckerberg is now turning to the force of government. He is advocating regulation that would force social media companies to increase transparency on ads and fight hate speech. And ban offensive messages. And vet content. And more.

Interestingly, Facebook is already severely limiting free speech. To voice a non-Marxist opinion on Zuckerberg's platform is to take the risk of being suddenly banned by his anonymous, unaccountable censors. Zuckerberg employs a horde of rabid activists that roam the site, looking for popular pages that contain un-PC keywords, and will block off any user sounding vaguely conservative if he or she becomes too popular. His biased censorship, which would make the Chinese government proud, is starting to attract attention.

Facebook is actively fanning the fires of liberal hysteria over normal — if disputable — business practices and is trying to convert it into a push for regulations.

Zuckerberg is now advocating regulation mandating similar censorship and content vetting for all social media. This is a clever triple play. It would raise costs, and thus the barrier to entry, for all potential social network rivals, thereby keeping these pesky competitors at bay. It would absolve him from his anti-conservative witch hunt, since he would merely be implementing a regulation. And it would deprive banned users of a tribune where they can publish their horrid un-PC diatribes.

The latter implies that all censorship would systematically be biased toward statism. Wouldn't some regulated social media company limit its censorship? It's unlikely. Think about the type of person who would want to be hired as a "content verification specialist." Would this censor job attract the average Joe? Or the average libertarian? Or would it be a magnet for vengeful social justice warriors looking for an outlet for their resentment?

Facebook is actively fanning the fires of liberal hysteria over normal — if disputable — business practices and is trying to convert it into a push for regulations. It's the old tale of Br’er Rabbit (a charming tale probably censored by Facebook for its “racist” depiction of a dark-colored figure): "Please don't throw me into the briar patch." It turns out that Br’er Zuckerberg was born and bred in the briar patch of governmental regulations and would simply love for his clumsy critics to throw him into the thickest of it.




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Diddling While Rome Burns

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Your humble social media correspondent is troubled. For some time now, discord among warring libertarians has raged on Facebook, my own battlefield of choice. In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

One friend — whom I also know personally — has gone on an unholy tear about the injustices of life as a tenant. “Rent is theft!” his posts repeatedly scream. I’ve always considered him a levelheaded person. I have no idea what’s happened to him. A lot of people are quitting him because he’s gone to a place so dark they don’t want to follow.

In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

I know he leans far left. Like a lot of former statist progressives, he’s outraged about something practically all the time. He sees it as his personal mission to convert as many as possible of his comrades to left-libertarianism. I suppose you could say that he’s the Apostle Paul of that faction. But if all he has to give these hungry souls is more outrage and aggrievement, I think he’s offering pretty thin gruel.

In my previous essay in Liberty I alluded to the compulsion I see in so many people to dress up in fancy and heroic costumes. As this turbulence on Facebook was something I was already facing daily, I had it at least partially in mind. Almost everybody involved is between 19 and 25, looking for a girlfriend (or in some cases, a boyfriend) and hoping to appear edgy and revolutionary. I know I must be getting old, because the whole production is making me tired and cranky.

These people need to take a good, hard look around them. I can’t imagine where they’re getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom. Their mothers might have cared, in a worried, “Do you have a tummyache, dear?” sort of way, and their buds at the dorm probably found it mildly engrossing over pizza and beer. But they’re supposed to be adults now, and they’re merely diddling while Rome burns.

We’ve all got a lot of heavy lifting to do if we are even going to budge this society in a libertarian direction. The blessed time when we might profitably haggle about what type of libertarian society we’re going to have — just exactly, and to a precise ideological point — is one that neither I, nor anyone reading this essay, will ever live to see. It may be as distant in the future as the American Revolution is in the past. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are standing for what is right and that each of us is doing our personal utmost to work toward that worthy goal. Ordering fries with that is simply not an option.

Where are they getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom?

I’m glad to see so many new converts to the liberty movement, especially among the young, but I fear that few of them will persevere long enough to see their commitment through. I think it’s very likely that they’ll get discouraged by the tough slog, and end up returning to statism — a hefty part of the appeal of which is the promise of an order of fries with that. To switch metaphors yet again, we now find ourselves stuck in Siberia, but hope to row, in our huge fleet of leaky rowboats, clear to Honolulu. As we navigate the stormy waters between us and our destination, will they turn aside and end up shipwrecked on Alcatraz?

We’ll all just have to stay tuned. I know that I’ll continue to follow the soap opera. And I fully intend to persevere on our journey. I don’t needa side of fries — though there are some days when I yearn for an aspirin, the size of a hockey puck.




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Imagined Community

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Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho




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Face Time

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I was not an early adopter of Facebook. And I joined for commercial reasons. For a short time a few years ago, all the smart people in book publishing were saying that social media was the future of book promotion. Of course, at that point, the smart people in every industry were saying that social media was the future of promoting any product or service. Some of those smart people may have been in the employ of Zuckerberg & Co.

That conventional wisdom, like most such, turned out to be an exaggeration of a minor observation. My firm’s efforts at promotion through Facebook have yielded modest results. (The well-worn triad of direct mail, author spots on local talk radio, and carefully-chosen display ads remains the most effective way to promote books.)

Despite this, I still use Facebook. And may use it more than ever. It’s a pleasant diversion, a low-maintenance way to stay in touch with family, friends and a group of “Facebook friends” — acquaintances from high school, college and other points in my life. It offers the interactivity of a chat room with the promise of enough vetting to keep out the most egregious cretins and child-molesters.

It’s also an interesting laboratory for measuring people’s attitudes about sports, politics, pop culture and the news.

One thing that I’ve learned is how presumptuous — and erroneously presumptuous — people are about the means and motives of online entertainment. Many of my acquaintances presume that there’s some system of consumer-protection law that applies to their dealings on Facebook. This applies especially to matters of “privacy.”

Facebook is, like Google, an advertising company at heart. The business model is to create an online space that people will visit regularly — and then to sell access to those people. Many of the activities on Facebook are designed to capture information about users likes and dislikes, so that Facebook can create detailed consumer profiles and sell precisely-calibrated access to advertisers.Yet multitudes of Facebook users rage childishly when this or that detail comes to light about how the site collects information.

Another lesson (and the real reason for this Reflection): the politics and beliefs of most Americans are so ill-formed and erratic that it’s difficult to engage them in a meaningful way.

Recently, several of my Facebook friends posted approving comments about Warren Buffett’s “integrity” and “bravery” in calling for higher taxes on the wealthy. I pointed out — as I have in this space — that there’s no integrity or bravery in Buffett. At least on this issue. He’s acting in self-interest, and being cagey about it. His company’s holdings include several life insurance companies that sell annuities and other tax-avoidance mechanisms. The higher the federal tax rates, the more his products sell. He’s like an arsonist who owns the fire-extinguisher shop across the street from a theater that he sets afire during a sold-out performance of La Boheme.

Despite the ugly truth, some of my Facebook friends insisted that Buffett looks out for the working man. So, I pointed out that he is also a large shareholder in the Washington Post Company — whose highly-profitable Kaplan Education unit destroys the lives of working-class idiots by selling them worthless degrees financed by costly student loans that aren’t dischargable in bankruptcy.

At this point, a friend of one of my Facebook friends — who could read the comment thread through his connection to my friend (such is the nature of a social network) — commented that my use of the term “working-class idiots” was offensive. And that he knew better than I how predatory Kaplan Education is because he had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to get a useless certificate in 3D animation from that very company. And that, several years later, he remains unemployed. But he wasn’t as angry at Kaplan or Buffett as he was at me for describing his ilk unkindly.

The What’s the Matter with Kansas wing of the American Left argues that presumedly right-leaning corporate interests brainwash the middle class into voting against its own interests. But that brainwashing isn’t a Right/Left phenomenon. The same argument could be made of the presumedly left-leaning Warren Buffett and the unemployed friend of my Facebook friend.

We who value liberty have a long way to go in explaining our case to the American masses. We have to assume our fellow citizens know nothing. Or, worse, we have to assume that most of what they know is affirmatively false. And we have to do it nicely.

I use Facebook as a tool to sharpen my skills in this effort.




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