Maybe we need a moral panic about Facebook

Sorry, I mean Metaverse, Inc.

I have a friend who's a journalist who writes about surveillance and tech companies. Facebook is a frequent subject of his work; like a lot of people who write about the company, he quit both Facebook (the main platform) and Instagram a long time ago. His mom, on the other hand, is one of the most engaged and enthusiastic Facebook users to cross my News Feed (which she did, frequently), despite years of warning from her son about the company's invasive data-gathering techniques and its cavalier (at best) attitude toward user privacy. My friend could break news stories about Facebook’s cooperation with authoritarian governments or its secret in-house moderation rules. But he couldn’t get his mom off of Facebook.

As it turned out, Frances Haugen could. Haugen is the former Facebook product manager (from Facebook's "civic integrity department" lmao) who leaked a large cache of documents to the Wall Street Journal demonstrating that Facebook had detailed knowledge of the harms its platform could cause, and chose nonetheless to prioritize growth and profit. Most damning were the results of internal research showing that — contrary to the company’s many public statements — Facebook subsidiary Instagram was “toxic” to teen girls. Haugen’s subsequent appearance on 60 Minutes, which revealed her identity as the leaker, managed to do what a half-decade of close enterprise reporting on Facebook couldn't: convince my friend's mom to log off.

New stories from documents leaked by Haugen are coming next week. On Monday, a Facebook flack named John Pinette tweeted from Facebook's "newsroom" account that "30+ journalists are finishing up a coordinated series of articles based on thousands of pages of leaked documents." What the Journal published, from what I hear, represents only a small portion of what Haugen left the company with. Now the Times, among others, has its own series planned, based another round of leaked presentations, emails, memos, and research results.

Seemingly in response, Facebook appears to be trying to rename itself in a way that will reflect its focus “the metaverse.” (The Times defines the metaverse: “As a buzzword, the metaverse refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. Together, these new technologies hint at what the internet will become next.” I think it’s sort of… Facebook VR, but with NFTs?)1 That Facebook is flailing like this suggests the company is scared. (Also incompetent, on a public-relations level. But mostly scared.)


You’re reading Read Max, a newsletter about the tech industry, digital culture, and its author’s neuroses. If you like the newsletter, please share it — and subscribe.


And … maybe it should be? “I think this issue may be one where the power of bipartisan outrage and support really enabled us to cross the finish line,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters after Haugen’s testimony on Capitol Hill. “I have rarely — if ever — seen the kind of unanimity on display today.” The consensus among political and tech policy reporters is that this is as close to meaningful reform and regulation as we've ever gotten. And my friend's mom quit, too! Which is not nothing.

But what interests me is less the question of whether or not legislators are actually going to hurt Facebook because of Frances Haugen — no one's gone broke over the last 40 years betting against meaningful regulation — than the question of … well, why her? More than a decade's worth of reporting, research, analysis, criticism, and activism has laid bare many times over the depth of Facebook's problems — its incompetence, its malevolence, its creepiness. You could affect a savvy pose and say that there's nothing in the leaked documents that we didn't already know, or couldn't have easily extrapolated from what we'd confirmed, and, you know, you'd be acting like a dick, but you'd basically be right.

Haugen’s not even the first Facebook leaker to come forward! As a Protocol profile of whistleblower Sophie Zhang asks: “Zhang came forward with allegations against Facebook long before Frances Haugen. So how come it took so long for people to listen?” So, why have these stories penetrated the consciousness of senators, boomers, and others who till now haven't really given Facebook much deep thought?

Among tech critics, there's a long-simmering disagreement about how to think about Facebook and its effects on the world. The issue around which the opposing sides are most clearly defined is the question of "misinformation." Put really crudely, on one side you have people who argue that Facebook aids and abets propaganda and fake news stories created with the goal of misleading and misinforming U.S. citizens on an unprecedented scale. On the other side you have people who say, no, it doesn't, and that's not how it works anyway2. The first group tends to be identified with centrist political and media establishment; the second group with the left3.

(I don't want to both-sides this dispute; on the misinformation question, as with many others, the weight of empirical, historical, and analytical evidence weighs heavily on the side of those who argue that "fake news" in and of itself was not a particularly important factor in the 2016 election, and has become even less of an issue since.)

Share

Maybe a slightly more generous (if cruder) way of casting this disagreement is as one between people who believe Facebook has inaugurated a wholly new dynamic in politics, media, business, democracy, society, and so on, and people for whom Facebook is participating in or taking advantage of dynamics that were in place well before it became a world-conquering colossus. That is, did Facebook ruin the world, or was the world already in the process of being ruined when Facebook showed up with its world-class world-ruining tools? (This disagreement mirrors, not coincidentally, left-liberal debates about Trump and whether he represents change in or continuity with the Republican Party.)

For now, in establishment papers and on cable news, the "Facebook is uniquely, horribly, newly bad" position has taken hold, at various levels of rigor and subtlety, just as the “Trump represents a terrible deviation from the history of the Republican party” did, and it's persuaded a population of politically engaged, news-consuming, mostly liberals. But it hasn’t managed to create a political base for regulation or reform.

My sense is that it’s because the argument is simply not that convincing. Most of the ills attributed to Facebook in panicked THREAD:s and op-eds don’t originate with the platform. The platform may expand the reach and cement the polarizing power of hyperpartisan “journalism,” but in a political and media landscape already transformed by Fox News — which has plenty of American antecedents of its own — it can be hard to articulate what, precisely, is so much different about Facebook’s News Feed other than that the people who profit from sharing propaganda are Macedonian teenagers instead of Australian octogenarians. Facebook may be a monopoly, or something approaching one, but companies with monopoly-like power have a long history in this country ("online" and "offline" used to refer to railroads), and have especially proliferated since the 1980s, helping drive down wages and trapping workers at all wage levels in jobs with onerous no-compete clauses. Private censorship power may seem galling, but none of us have free-speech rights at our workplaces; data-mining might be creepy, but Facebook’s surveillance system is outstripped in power and danger by the national security state. 

Put more bluntly, a person hearing the “epochal change” critique of Facebook would not be wrong to wonder: What exactly makes this company any different from any other of the rapacious, amoral, untrustworthy, bottom-line-focused institutions with which I am obligated to do business on a regular basis?

But in making that point, the “continuity” critique can easily neuter itself. If Facebook is more of the same, what’s the point of criticizing it at all? Surely there is something different, new, worse, scarier about Facebook?

This is where I think the only-somewhat-precedented outrage generated by Haugen is interesting.

Look, there are a lot of reasons for Haugen’s prominence. She leaked a lot more than her predecessors have. That whole decade-plus of writing and work on Facebook is a lot of straw for a camel to support, even a strong one, to the point that really any new story would have broken its back. Maybe most importantly, The Haugen leaks — and Haugen's identity — have been extremely well (and professionally) rolled out, the stories beautifully packaged and aggressively promoted.

Indeed, the Journal stories about kids and teens, and the Haugen leaks in general, have had a strong whiff of Facebook Moral Panic of exactly the kind Facebook's more rigorous critics find exasperating: Our kids are in danger, because of this scary new technology! The Times has already published an op-ed from a psychologist cautioning that the internal Facebook research in which teenage girls reported feeling worse after using Instagram is "inconclusive" and that the question of whether or not Instagram really does make teenagers depressed requires "much better research."

But I think dismissing the fervor over the Haugen leaks as mere boomerish moral panic risks missing something important about what's made them stick. (So far, at least.) Note that the Journal stories that generated the biggest outcry weren't about Facebook's political or structural or informational aftereffects, but about its affective malignance. People responded to the stories about the company inserting itself into and manipulating moods and social lives; about tempting people too young to use it; about making others miserable and angry. I think this is because they weren't stories about, you know, Facebook Is a Battlefield and Also an Army in the Eternal Cyberwar Against Russia and China, or whatever. They were stories about a basic, common-sense fact about Facebook: Facebook and its subsidiaries make people feel bad, and we all know it, including Facebook.

I've written a lot about Facebook and its peers over the last half decade or so, and I can say pretty conclusively that people are, in general, much less interested in structural accounts, no matter how rigorous and explanatory, than they are in writing about the affective dimension of tech power. "Structure" is abstract and difficult to touch; feelings are immediate and intuitive. Readers want help articulating how life on the platforms makes them feel, and why.

I think the change-vs.-continuity debate, focused as it is on Facebook's role in the political and media spheres, can miss entirely that the affective critique of Facebook — Facebook is bad because it makes people feel bad — is the most powerful. That's not to say it's empirically rigorous4, or that it's wholly new, or that it's not a way to blame the fundamental dynamic of capitalist alienation on a new technology. But if the point is to transform Facebook from something that works on us to something that works for us — and, barring that, to shut it down — it's useful to remember what people hate about it.

It’s not simply that Facebook shows us things that make us sad — though it does that, obviously, constantly — but that, as Richard Seymour puts it in his excellent book The Twittering Machine, it “produces, industrially, a social life bent around the imperatives of states and markets.” That people continue to use it despite this awareness — like the teenagers in Facebook’s studies who warn their younger siblings about posting on Instagram — is not a “revealed preference”; it’s further evidence that it’s insinuated itself, deeply and inescapably, into the social. Worse, in its new guise as a “metaverse” company, it doesn’t want to leave.

Where Facebook is most bad, in a way we all intuitively understand and experience, is in the psychic damage it causes. Dismissing that shared understanding as moral panic misses how powerful a motivation it can be for change.


Thank you for reading Read Max. If you liked this piece, please share it with other people who might like it — or with enemies who will hate and be vexed by it. If you’re not a subscriber, why not consider signing up?

Share

1

My personal take is that the metaverse is hypey bullshit from rich dummies that I will dismiss as worthless nonsense right up to the point where I find myself inside it flogging subscriptions to my blockchain-VR-newsletter DAO in the hopes I can make enough ether to emigrate my whole family to the Rick-and-Morty-themed city Elon Musk built on Mars.

2

More specifically, the argument is that "fake news" on Facebook has little persuasive power, that it's published and shared more to (say) express and affirm political identity than it is to specifically mislead or convince readers of new facts. There's a lot of stuff you can read on this question, but the bottom line is that people form their ideas about how the world is through a complex social process that occurs online and off, not because they read an article on Facebook from AmericaOneEagleNews.biz and reassessed the facts at hand.

3

I'm not saying it's a "Hillary vs. Bernie" thing, or a "boomers vs. millennials" thing ... but I'm not not saying it.

4

Though, you know, let’s not let the social scientists referee our politics, here.