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A troubled behemoth

John Bowers QC reviews Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy

Artillery Row Books
Facebook: The Inside Story,
by Steven Levy, Penguin, £20

Facebook is a potent symbol or totem of our age. Its vertiginous rise has been superseded by a steep fall. Originally, it was the coolest social network for university students, then a necessary accessory for the young, but now it is considered a has-been and a repository of hate speech. It is presently suffering an advertising boycott because of its failure to control its content. The young have moved to Instagram (owned of course by Facebook). 

Facebook can be a force for good; if you want to find people with an interest in an obscure disease, this is the right place to head to. It has allowed people in an area to get in touch with each other which they would not do in person. And it is great for rapidly organising protests. I should declare a non interest as, unlike probably most of you, I do not have a Facebook page and never had one.

It spoke volumes that Twitter took down the tweet from Trump that “when the looting starts the shooting starts”, but Facebook resolutely kept it up

Mark Zuckerberg once said that Apple was an innovation company; Facebook a revolution company. When a business chooses as its motto “Move fast and break things” however it is perhaps no surprise that at some stage it breaks itself, but has Facebook now broken itself by its failure to deal with hate speech? It spoke volumes that Twitter took down the tweet from President Trump that “when the looting starts the shooting starts”, but Facebook resolutely kept it up. 

In this new book, Steven Levy, a technology writer charts the novelty, the thrusting and the hubris of Facebook, which in many ways reflects the personality of its still wholly dominant Founder. He presents some extraordinary facts in a racy and riveting mainly chronological narrative. 

Did you know for example that when likes were introduced some pages began patronising a black market for likes? For a price people could buy thousands, sometimes provided by a legion of low paid workers in China.

Levy gained behind-the-scenes access but this does not prevent him being critical. He portrays a behemoth with many of the trappings of a nation state. When Zuckerberg recently issued a missive about how Facebook would deal with the next Presidential Election it felt as though it was setting the terms of engagement more powerfully than the Federal Election Commission.

The author sees the problems stemming mainly from the Company’s emphasis on growth at the cost of everything else. The US Election of 2016 was clearly a turning point too. One of the biggest problems is the inability of users to distinguish Fake news articles; they appear alongside those from respected news outfits without any labels. For example, you might think the Denver Guardian which reported on 5 November 2016 that “FBI agent suspected in Hilary e mail leaks found dead in apparent murder suicide” was such a respected news outfit. In fact, it did not exist but was a creation of a 40-year-old man living in suburbs of LA with motives which are still unclear. Anyone reading Facebook News Feed however could not tell the difference and no one from Facebook helped them.

The Cambridge Analytica debacle also became a symbol of Facebook’s bigger trust issues, cavalier view towards user privacy and greedy manipulation. Levy puts it well: “to the public CA was now the lifted rock that exposed a hellish profusion of scurrying vermin”. And it did not help that the company at the outset sought to brazen this one out as it often does. Facebook also was responsible for a security breach that exposed the personal information of 50 million users. The Federal Trade Commission settlement cost it $5 billion.

The company usually responds to criticism in this way “The world is full of bad people. No company in history has ever had to answer to the bad people in the world as much as Facebook has. It is mentioned in 40% of divorces”. It is also the repository for suicide videos; and murders including the horrific mass murder in Christ Church New Zealand which was streamed live. Facebook’s position that it is a platform and not a publisher is wearing pretty thin and it recognises this in its new Oversight Board consisting of the Great and the Good. 

We have a schizophrenic attitude; we like the products but we profess to hate Big Tech

There is a crisis of confidence within Facebook. The company, which started with a thousand dollars from a classmate and now rakes in more than $50 billion a year, will survive, not least because of FOMO (the fear of missing out) amongst users and advertisers. We have a schizophrenic attitude; we like the products but we profess to hate Big Tech.

Can Facebook bounce back? You bet it can.

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