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The Left Needs to Get Off Facebook
The terrain is only getting worse.
One of the more fascinating contradictions in modern political life is how the left approaches Facebook. Liberals, socialists, and anarchists may share little in common on a given day, but they all inevitably show up on Mark Zuckerberg’s world-historical internet platform. Sixteen years on, a large percentage of Americans, including those in the political arena, dedicate every day to pouring their thoughts, affections, and personal grievances into the extremely profitable social media network. Why? Well, everyone is there. You show up on Facebook the way the Olds once rang up friends on the telephone to see how it was going down there or over there, who was beefing with whom, if the weather was still good for tennis or what new Mexican restaurant opened up in the old neighborhood. The phone call done, the newspaper was opened up—one of the little neighborhood locals, or the Post or the News or maybe, if you were in that kind of mood, the Times—and the hard stuff was scanned first, the murders at home and wars in foreign lands, before getting on to things that were actually enjoyable to read, like sports or dining. Newspapers could lie, but there were editors straining to check facts, most of the time. And the mighty screen, just a television, only came for you in the morning and evening times.
All of this, for most people over the age of 30, is Facebook now. Though Facebook no longer captivates the young like it used to, younger Millennials and Zoomers ditching the plodding interface for Snapchat or TikTok, it is the equivalent of church for the wide swath of Gen X and Boomers who grew up without internet connections and arrived, like unwitting children, at perhaps the most addictive medium known to humanity thus far. There has been much said about the dangers Facebook poses to democracy and daily life. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has written, Facebook has fueled genocide abroad by enabling misinformation campaigns in countries that treat Facebook as synonymous with the internet itself. In America, conspiracy theories proliferate through memes and faked news stories that seduce those with limited news literary. Facebook’s algorithms reward the most incendiary posts and articles. Since people on Facebook interact without being able to perceive the humanity of those they are writing to—they are not face-to-face, in flesh—rage-fueled dialogue is common, with feuds easily escalating, bullying and harassment commonplace. All of it, perversely, enriches Zuckerberg and his shareholders. The intrinsic value of the interaction is meaningless, as long as it merely occurs and Zuckerberg can convince advertisers that billions of eyeballs remain on his platform. Facebook succeeds by harvesting as much information about you as it can. The writer Jarett Kobek, one of the more insightful observers of internet culture in America today, spoke to me last year about this central contradiction. “If you’re on the left, how can your protest, your political thoughts, your critiques of late capitalist systems have validity if those thoughts, protests, and critiques invariably kick money up to the people you are critiquing? I don’t know what the answer to it is,” he said.
For many on the left, the answer is for Facebook to act more like a news editor and begin to take seriously its role as a purveyor of information for the many millions who treat it as their de facto newspaper, their local media outlet likely shuttered or severely hobbled. Calls for Facebook to regulate speech and more readily purge those spreading misinformation and hate are common. Heeding these calls, Facebook has begun cracking down on pages and groups linked to the vile conspiracy theory QAnon and the anti-fascist group Antifa, expanding its policies to take action against those who are deemed, in Facebook’s view, “dangerous” organizations. Mainstream liberals and Democrats, convinced Facebook played a decisive role in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, are demanding the social media giant stamp out misinformation on its platform in the months leading up to Election Day. This is understandable because Facebook is, in every sense, a savage amplifier of lies and conspiracies. It is difficult to argue Facebook, with its great power, shouldn’t take more responsibility. Here, though, lies a danger. Facebook’s targeting of Antifa could be an early indication that the Silicon Valley giant may be increasingly open to censoring information and ideas that reside outside of the political mainstream, particularly if the criteria is centered around calls for violent resistance. Would Malcolm X or Kwame Ture or John Brown survive the new Facebook purge? Not as historical figures and civil rights luminaries, but as contemporary thinkers unafraid of radical calls to action? When a corporate titan with values antithetical to the long-term projects of the left, like forcing these corporations to pay far more in taxes or dissolve altogether, is asked to police speech, it may only be a matter of time before its enemies—not just those who promote outright fabrications—end up in its crosshairs.
Reform of Facebook, in the interim, doesn’t appear to be possible. The future, if there is one, is likely in treating it as a monopoly and breaking it up, unwinding the Instagram and WhatsApp mergers and reinvigorating America’s anti-trust tradition. New internet privacy laws must undercut Facebook’s insidious business model. Facebook should be compelled to dole out large amounts of revenue to beleaguered news organizations. Unfortunately, it’s not apparent Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, if elected in November, will particularly care about reining in Facebook. Absent these larger actions, Facebook will remain one of the most disruptive forces the 21st century society has known, seeping into almost all facets of daily life. For those committed to organizing for progressive causes and against the very nature of what Facebook represents, this presents a singular challenge. Since so many people engage with Facebook, political organizing and discussions happen there constantly, in many different threads and groups. The Democratic Socialists of America are active Facebook users; some of their most robust debates happen within the threads of statuses posted by leading organizers and in discussion groups, public and private. I am an occasional Facebook user, showing up there mostly to share my own published articles and essays (as well as this newsletter) and, from time to time, offer comments on threads. I go to Facebook, I tell myself, chiefly because others are still there and it’s one venue of exposure for my writing. I try to give Facebook as little information about myself as possible, with few personal updates or new photos. I was last a daily active user during my State Senate campaign, using the platform, as all modern candidates have done, to communicate with voters and spend money on ads, which are quite cost efficient for the number of people they reach. Political candidates, no matter how true their leftist convictions, cannot forswear Facebook because it has been the agora of the 2010s and 2020s, the inarguable gathering place for most people. Voter education and conversion, when not occurring in person, is conducted there.
All of this makes it difficult for progressives to consider doing what must, in the years to come, be done, absent government action that can weaken Facebook: exit as much of it as possible. New tech platforms must be envisioned, ones that do not harvest personal data for advertisers. Digital political discussion and debate must happen elsewhere, beyond Facebook. Encrypted email and text should be used when possible. I haven’t touched on Twitter, the corrosive discourse vehicle for journalists, politicians, and various elite thought leaders, because it is not as pervasive or as successful as Facebook. Twitter cannot monetize personal data in the same way and it remains a medium unused by most Americans, popularized mostly by Donald Trump’s compulsive usage. I remain an ambivalent and habitual Twitter user, in part because it can be a good place to promote my work, engage in political debates, and flatter my own ego. (I say out loud only what every other blue checkmark with a non-negligible following thinks each day when they go tap-tap on their smartphones.) Facebook is a leviathan; Twitter is a pesky, unnaturally verbose minnow. Progressives should be aware that all they give to Facebook—their furious arguments, links, and evidence marshaled for lively debate—are fodder for a pernicious and inordinately powerful corporation to enrich itself. Yes, people must be met where they are, and for now, voter outreach will need to include a Facebook component. But activity beyond the prospect of voter retention and conversion must begin to happen elsewhere.
Boycotts will only go so far without government regulation and most consumers of Facebook have not been willing to disconnect. Those who do know better, however, should seek to conduct their debates, discussions, and internal education on platforms that are not so aligned against the greater interests of the left. It’s why leftists should, when possible, not shop on Amazon, and only engage with the company when alternatives are impossible, like when we all visit websites that are using Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing functions. Disengagement with Facebook is of similar importance. There is no such thing as a private group or communication on Facebook because those who work for the corporation are able to read what is written. There is no such thing as a thought or question that isn't monetized, instantly, for Facebook. Your thoughts earn money for them. And until government action is real, digital serfdom will only be undermined through individual action and accountability. Facebook is our feudal lord—we work the land, feeding content into its algorithms, with the wealth flowing only one way. Facebook cannot exist without us. We are user and product alike. We must recognize the power we do have and exercise our own agency to leave Facebook behind. The left has a special duty to do this because of the values that inform their discourse and action. Corporatist conservatives or those who celebrate destructive monopolies are not hypocritical for living their digital lives within Facebook’s gates. Those who believe in the very opposite need to reassess how they spend their days. Few, if any, leftists would do their political organizing inside Walmart if the superstore began offering free community space. Why is Facebook different? It hasn’t broken any unions or ruined small businesses, at least. It has, however, invaded our private lives, drained news organizations of revenue, and threatened the social foundations of nations across the world. A Facebook exodus, like all lofty goals of the left—enacting Medicare for All, shrinking the military-industrial complex, or reducing income inequality—will be difficult to bring to fruition. This does not mean it shouldn’t be attempted, absent serious action from the federal government to break up the Facebook monopoly. Facebook must be left behind.