Peggy Noonan rips into Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook today, and oh is it ever sweet. The column is behind the Wall Street Journal paywall, so I’ll summarize.
Noonan says that in 2016, she was invited by Mark Zuckerberg’s office inviting her to join other “conservative activists” at a private meeting to discuss how Facebook could combat systemic anti-conservative political bias at the company. She declined to go, because, she said, she refused to participate in an off-the-record event.
Noonan cites this subsequent 2018 story in WIRED, which mentions the meeting she did not attend. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Facebook decided, too, that it had to extend an olive branch to the entire American right wing, much of which was raging about the company’s supposed perfidy. And so, just over a week after the story ran, Facebook scrambled to invite a group of 17 prominent Republicans out to Menlo Park. The list included television hosts, radio stars, think tankers, and an adviser to the Trump campaign. The point was partly to get feedback. But more than that, the company wanted to make a show of apologizing for its sins, lifting up the back of its shirt, and asking for the lash.
According to a Facebook employee involved in planning the meeting, part of the goal was to bring in a group of conservatives who were certain to fight with one another. They made sure to have libertarians who wouldn’t want to regulate the platform and partisans who would. Another goal, according to the employee, was to make sure the attendees were “bored to death” by a technical presentation after Zuckerberg and Sandberg had addressed the group.
The power went out, and the room got uncomfortably hot. But otherwise the meeting went according to plan. The guests did indeed fight, and they failed to unify in a way that was either threatening or coherent. Some wanted the company to set hiring quotas for conservative employees; others thought that idea was nuts. As often happens when outsiders meet with Facebook, people used the time to try to figure out how they could get more followers for their own pages.
Afterward, Glenn Beck, one of the invitees, wrote an essay about the meeting, praising Zuckerberg. “I asked him if Facebook, now or in the future, would be an open platform for the sharing of all ideas or a curator of content,” Beck wrote. “Without hesitation, with clarity and boldness, Mark said there is only one Facebook and one path forward: ‘We are an open platform.’”
So the whole meeting was a set-up to co-opt the Right. Says Noonan, “Never were pawns so happily used.”
Flash-forward to last summer. Zuckerberg’s office approaches her again for an off the record meeting with others.
They used that greasy greaseball language Silicon Valley uses: Mr. Zuckerberg is “focused on protecting” users and thinking about “the future and how best to serve the Facebook community.”
She told him where he could get off, and called him, in an e-mail, an “imperious twerp.” Never was a titan of industry so accurately described.
Noonan pivots to the anti-trust talk in Washington now about how government needs to do something to rein in the power of Big Tech. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple are spending tens of millions of dollars to build a D-Day army of lobbyists. Her conclusion:
Here’s what they should be thinking: Break them up. Break them in two, in three; regulate them. Declare them to be what they’ve so successfully become: once a pleasure, now a utility.
It all depends on Congress, which has been too stupid to move in the past and is too stupid to move competently now. That’s what’s slowed those of us who want reform, knowing how badly they’d do it.
Yet now I find myself thinking: I don’t care. Do it incompetently, but do something.
Why are Republicans so slow to lead? The Times quoted Republican Sen. Josh Hawley as saying “the dominance of big tech” is a “big problem.” They “may be more socially powerful than the trusts of the Roosevelt era, and yet they still operate like a black box.”
But I read about lobbyists coming at Republican congressional leaders and I think, it’s going to be like Mr. Zuckerberg’s meeting with the conservatives in 2016. A tech god will give them some attention, some respect, and they’ll fold like a cheap suit.
If they are as stupid and unserious as their critics take them to be, they will go to the meeting and be used.
They should say no and hit send.
Along those lines, here’s an interesting tidbit from that WIRED story:
This notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company. When new recruits come in, they are treated to an orientation lecture by Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, who tells them Facebook is an entirely new communications platform for the 21st century, as the telephone was for the 20th.
If that’s true that Facebook is to the 21st century at the telephone was to the 20th — and I think it pretty much is — then right there is the argument that it’s a utility, and therefore subject to regulation. I don’t believe the government should be telling Facebook what it can and can’t post (e.g., forcing it to have a quota of conservative posts). But I do think that the government has to take seriously the monopolistic role Facebook plays in the public discourse.
It’s not just Facebook. YouTube is like this too. If YouTube doesn’t like what you’re doing, they can ban you, or demonetize you. And then where are you? This is likely to fall disproportionately on conservatives, but there’s no guarantee that certain kinds of progressives won’t feel the pressure some day. Americans should ask themselves whether they want the values of Silicon Valley to control the major means of discourse.
Standard conservatives and libertarians are arguing, on principle, that the state has no business telling private businesses what to do, even if it disadvantages conservatives. I can admire their sticking to principle, but this is an example where free-market dogma doesn’t match reality. Spend some time with Shoshanna Zuboff’s great book The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism, which details how Silicon Valley bigs are gathering all kinds of personal data, and exploiting it for profit. There has never been a business like this one, one that poses such extraordinary dangers of personal and political liberty. This is not merely about freedom of expression. Zuboff writes:
The entangled dilemmas of knowledge, authority, and power are no longer confined to workplaces as they were in the 1980s. Now their roots run deep through the necessities of daily life, mediating nearly every form of social participation.
She explains in the book how Facebook, Google, and the others are heavily involved in behavior modification. More:
Our dependency is at the heart of the commercial surveillance project, in which our felt needs for effective life vie against the inclination to resist its bold incursions. This conflict produces a psychic numbing that inures us to the realities of being tracked, parsed, mined, and modified. It disposes us to rationalize the situation in resigned cynicism, created excuses that operate like defense mechanisms (“I have nothing to hide”), or find other ways to stick our heads in the sand, choosing ignorance out of frustration and helplessness. In this way, surveillance capitalism imposes a fundamentally illegitimate choice that twenty-first century individuals should not have to make, and it normalization leaves us singing in our chains.
… As long as surveillance capitalism and its behavioral futures markets are allowed to thrive, ownership of the new means of behavioral modification eclipses ownership of the means of production as the fountainhead of capitalism wealth and power in the twenty-first century.
I repeat: what Facebook and the other tech giants represent is something we have never seen before, something that our normal frameworks are inadequate to cope with. Zuboff:
One explanation for surveillance capitalism’s many triumphs floats above them all: it is unprecedented. The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented. This is how the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past. This contributed to the normalization of the abnormal, which makes fighting the unprecedented even more of an uphill climb.
I’ve not yet finished the book, but it’s pretty clear that Zuboff is on the political left. So what! She makes a strong case for government involvement to protect individuals from the overwhelming power of these tech titans, who regard all of us, and all our privacy, as nothing but material to be mined.
This is vital to the project I’m working on now — the book about how people who lived under Communism can teach us how to recognize and resist soft totalitarianism in our own culture. Last month, sitting in the apartment of Czech anti-communist dissident Kamila Bendova, in Prague, a flat that was bugged by the secret police, Kamila told me that it shocks her how unconcerned Westerners are about giving up their personal data to these companies. She said, “Don’t you realize that all of this is going to be used against you, sooner or later?”
The stakes in this political fight are far beyond whether or not the government should tell a tech company what it can and can’t do. This is not a left or right thing. The stakes go down to the kind of society we’re going to live in for the rest of this century, and beyond.