Facebook’s stated mission is to, “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” For the month of September 2017, Facebook averaged 1.37 billion daily active users; nearly a fifth of the world’s population logs on each day. Facebook has unquestionably achieved its mission, as an enormous collective of users has united in its willingness to publish and share information. Over the thirteen years of its existence, Facebook has created the most advanced engine of data collection and distribution in the world. It has so much data, in fact, that it can systematically break down democracy in order to advance a factional agenda. Facebook, with its unprecedented means of organization and information dissemination, has the power to dissolve nation states and usher in a new system of governance.
1. Data Collection
Facebook does not charge its users money to use its namesake platform, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp. These “free” services are able to operate due to the data their user bases provide them with. In its readily accessible Data Policy, Facebook details what information it collects and how it uses the information, though the document doesn’t outline the full scale of its data accumulation and processing operations. Facebook believes that the exchange of its services for data is fair, but many of its users are blissfully ignorant of the ways in which their data is being captured and utilized. Russia weaponized Facebook’s platform during the buildup to the United States presidential election by propagating false or partisan marketing campaigns across users’ news feeds. While the effect of these campaigns is still unknown, the threat they posed to our democratic system is undeniable.
2. Data Structuring
Facebook has to structure its petabytes of data in order to make sense of its users’ relationships, interests, activities, and other associations. This structure has taken the form of a social graph. In 2007, donning a Northface fleece and Adidas sandals, Mark Zuckerberg addressed an audience from the stage at the Web 2.0 Summit. An early iteration of the statesman he is today, the visibly stiff Zuckerberg shared his vision of making Facebook’s social graph accessible to developers, which would let them develop applications on the Facebook platform. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t coin the term “social graph,” but he and his company have created the largest one to date. The social graph is a mapping of connections between actors, actions, and objects. As a one-dimensional example, if I login to Facebook and “like” a post my friend made, then I am the actor, my act of liking a post is the action, and my friend’s post is the object. The social graph is a reflection of the relationships, or “edges,” between people, the content they post, their interests, and their behaviors. As Facebook’s user base grew, its social graph did so exponentially.
3. Algorithmic Micro-Targeting
Facebook has capitalized on its data stores through the development and deployment of advanced algorithms designed for “micro-targeting” users of interest. The Share Foundation, an organization advocating for open and decentralized communication, analyzed Facebook’s many patents. The foundation discovered numerous ways in which Facebook leverages its data to distribute ads to its users. Facebook targets you based on your interests, your social connections, the events you express interests in, your search history, etc.
From Democracy to Oligarchy
A democracy is a system of government in which each member of an entire population can influence the future of the nation he inhabits. Implementations of democracy may differ from nation to nation, but they all share the same principle of “majority rule.” Democracies can only function in nations with informed populations, as they must understand the costs and benefits of a course of action before they make decisions. We rely on the media to communicate how policies and laws will affect us, which underscores the importance of unbiased and unfiltered media outlets. However, not all media syndicates create and share news stories as a public service. Rather, some syndicates spread propaganda across airwaves and television channels in hopes of convincing the public to adopt their slanted viewpoints. Populations need counterbalances to partisan arguments, so they can arrive at their own conclusions. Facebook’s hold on its users subjects them to a bespoke, censored, omni-channel stream of news with the power to change both sentiments and stances. Facebook, therefore, can be tooled to become the most effective system of propaganda distribution in the world.
Facebook and the companies under its umbrella have organized a network of over a billion people distributed across the globe. It knows far more about its users than many would have ever thought possible. In fact, the United States government clandestinely requests Facebook to provide it with information about specific users. Yes, Facebook may know more about you than your government. In its pursuit of growth, Facebook can tighten its control of users by shaping their feelings, forming their viewpoints, dictating their purchases, and collecting fees from their transactions. Facebook’s platform spans across territorial, cultural, political, and economic divisions and has formed a shared designation among its users: a source of data. We have seen the power of Facebook’s infrastructure on relatively small scales, but we cannot expect the growth and exploitation of this infrastructure to stall. Facebook may eventually remove the “country” attribute from its profile screen, as it will have become irrelevant. We will all then be united under Facebook’s control.