One of the few things that politicians of all stripes seem to be able to agree on these days is that Facebook is bad. Death Star bad.
Recent congressional testimony by Francis Haugen, a former product manager who alleges multiple improprieties at Facebook, received glowing accolades from both sides of the aisle and fawning coverage in the media — including a series in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Haugen, who is almost universally described by politicians and the press as a “very brave whistleblower,” is in deep clover these days.
As I watched Ms. Haugen testify before Congress, noting the number of politicians and pundits who tripped over each other to offer the most grandiloquent praise, I was struck by the notion that things seemed amiss. It was just too perfectly scripted — right out of Skywalker vs. the Empire.
It was, for one thing, difficult to ignore the fact that there was seemingly zero skepticism concerning the veracity of Ms. Haugen’s testimony. There are generally two sides to every story. Except, I guess, when politicians and the media agree that there is only one side.
Every time I heard a lawmaker or pundit exclaim that Ms. Haugen’s testimony was “corroborated” by documents that she’d taken with her when she left Facebook, I thought about the very recent widespread “corroboration” of the Steele dossier, which resulted in one of the most spectacular across the board face plants in media history.
Another thing that struck me about Ms. Haugen’s testimony was that it had the glossy feel of a high-level production. It appeared to me that someone really wants to put it to Facebook and they found in Ms. Haugen a nearly perfect vessel with which to accomplish that task.
I am not the first, nor am I the only person to have misgivings about all of this. Politico has done some great reporting on the issue. Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have also written about what’s going on behind the scenes. I am, however, dismayed (though not shocked) that this appears to be about the end of media interest in anything other than the prevailing narrative. The lack of objectivity here is a head scratcher. Is it possible that the media is worse than even I believe it to be?
Anytime you have both political parties and most of the media advocating for the proposition that the control of information be ceded to the government from private entities or individuals, everyone ought to be concerned. This holy war against social media reeks of self-interest. If you are considering supporting the jihad against Facebook, I suggest that you think again. There’s more to this than meets the eye.
Central to Ms. Haugen’s assertions against Facebook is the allegation that Facebook uses algorithms that are not designed to make people happier or better informed, but to generate and amplify outrage. I have almost no doubt that this is, at the very least, partially true. Click-bait and outrage are well known to attract eyeballs. And if you think about that for even a quick minute, the media’s interest in going after Facebook becomes pretty clear — they don’t like the competition. Especially when the competition has gotten way better than the media at their own game.
Politicians of both parties would love for the government to have greater control over information (or “misinformation,” as both sides like to call it, whether it’s an accurate appellation or not). How great would it be for politicians if they could just lean on some Politburo they controlled to put the kibosh on things floating around on the Internet that they found distasteful?
You don’t have to think about this in the abstract either. China, Iran, Syria, Myanmar and North Korea, among others, will be happy to show you how it works.
Ms. Haugen, who has been widely praised for her bravery, is a far piece from the typical whistleblower who comes forward with a lot to lose. Her expenses are being underwritten by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and current deep-pocket nemesis of big tech. Her management team consists of Bill Burton, a former Obama spokesperson, former Democratic presidential candidate Larry Lessig (you should read his bio) and Ben Scott, an adviser to Hillary Clinton. Yep, the same Hillary Clinton who’s still convinced that Russian interference via social media, as opposed to her unlikability, was the deciding factor in the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election.
Is Facebook a great company? I don’t know. Like most things there’s some good and some bad. I do know that no one is bending my arm up behind my back to use Facebook because they, unlike the government, don’t have the power to force me to toe any line. I’d like to keep things that way, too.
To Ms. Haugen’s main point, concerning the amplification of outrage, I think that you have to be a doofus to get overly wound up over things that you see on Facebook — especially when it’s relatively easy to control with Facebook’s own tools. A lot of what Ms. Haugen alleges about Facebook algorithms is as much a consequence of human nature as it is the fault of a company trying to exploit it.
You go ahead, if you are so inclined, and hate Facebook all you want. Just remember, using Facebook is completely voluntary. You can go elsewhere for information anytime you want.
You cede that power to government, you do so at a considerable risk to your status as a free citizen in a free society.
Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist. writer and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time with family, riding mountain bikes and motorcycles and playing guitars. His video blog: “Howlin’ at the Moon in ii-V-I” may be found at facebook.com/HowlinattheMoonin251 and on YouTube at bit.ly/2SN745k.