As Facebook Crumbles, the Case for Breaking It Up Is Weaker Than Ever
October 5, 2021 |
After a month of disastrous news coverage following various revelations of alleged misdeeds, Facebook reached its nadir on Monday with the site suffering a massive outage. Perhaps Facebook isn't so dominant, after all, and thus government force is absolutely not necessary to constrain it.
All apps in the Facebook family—including Instagram and WhatsApp—went down simultaneously on Monday. By the evening, they were up and running again, though not in time to rescue Facebook's stock, which slipped 4.9 percent in value. (CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly lost more than $6 billion in just a few hours.) The outage was so bad that Facebook employees couldn't even get inside the company's headquarters: The security systems were part of the same network.
The company's recent woes have fueled a new wave of criticisms from tech skeptics on both the left and right who want the government to either break up Big Tech, take away its liability protection, or either prohibit—or possibly require!—so-called misinformation on the platforms. A major theme of the Big Tech battles is that former President Donald Trump, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), and everyone in between wants to go after the companies, but for opposite and often conflicting reasons.
Conservatives think the platforms engage in too much moderation and have corrupted democracy in favor of 2020 election winner Joe Biden; liberals think Facebook doesn't practice nearly enough moderation—allowing right-wing violence and faulty info about quack COVID-19 cures to spread—and also corrupted U.S. democracy in favor of 2016 election winner Donald Trump. That the most extreme and opportunistic members of both political factions like to blame all their problems on Big Tech probably tells us more about them than it does about Facebook.
If there's one fear that unites the left and right, though, it's moral panic about social media—Instagram, in particular—causing feelings of depression and anxiety among teenage girls. This isn't a new fear: The psychologist Jean Twenge has been writing about it for years, and even Jonathan Haidt, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind and a figure generally well-respected by libertarians, thinks there's something to it. But it received a powerful narrative boost recently after a former Facebook employee came forward as a "whistleblower" and provided a series of scoops to The Wall Street Journal. The most significant of these scoops—as judged by the fact that it prompted an immediate (and, per usual, wildly embarrassing) Senate hearing—concerned Facebook's internal efforts to gauge Instagram's ill-effects on the mental wellness of young people.
The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, appeared on 60 Minutes on Sunday and will testify before Congress on Tuesday. Thanks to Haugen and the Journal's reporting, we know that Facebook attempted to survey teen users on how the platforms were impacting their mental health. Unsurprisingly, their findings were not entirely encouraging: One in five respondents said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves, and teens already struggling with mental illness said the platform was giving them a harder time.
Ostensibly, the problem with Instagram is that it promotes social competition—the race for likes and comments—among users posting artificial, filtered images of themselves, which may exacerbate body images issues. Of course, there's absolutely nothing new about this: Glossy magazines have been accused of doing the same thing for decades, but no one talks about the existential threats of Cosmopolitan or Teen Vogue. High school is a major source of misery and depression for many teenagers, but as Mike Solana pointed out in a terrific article on the anti-Facebook crusade, no one is demanding that the secretary of education be hauled before Congress:
Among teenagers in a state of mental crisis, how many are struggling with their family? How many are struggling with their friend group, or their crush? How many are struggling in a classroom? To the question of "does high school make you want to kill yourself," how many suicidal teenagers would answer "yes" — emphatically? Almost all of them? Next question, when are [we] dragging the Secretary of Education in front of Congress to explain why he hasn't solved depression?
Solana pointed out that Haugen didn't tell us anything new about Facebook and Instagram: Her achievement was really one of self-branding. Since the mainstream media is already inclined to believe the very worst about social media—a disfavored upstart competitor—anyone who comes forward and tells the media exactly what they want to hear on this subject is going to be celebrated as a hero. Thus Haugen is already being hailed as some sort of brave truth-teller, though her perspective is very much the popular one in progressive circles: Facebook emboldens hate and disinformation, and it has far too much power.
On this last charge, it's never been more apparent that something close to the opposite is true. Far from occupying some dominant and unassailable position in modern society, Facebook's relevance is probably fading. The company is desperate to attract the sorts of users—young people, mostly—who provide cultural cache and excite advertisers and investors. But this is increasingly a losing battle. Facebook—or "Boomerbook" as some call it—has never been less popular with the kids, and even Instagram faces tremendous competition from Snapchat, TikTok, and whatever cool new thing is coming along next.
"The truth is that Facebook's thirst for young users is less about dominating a new market and more about staving off irrelevance," wrote The New York Times' Kevin Roose in an article that sounded a highly pessimistic note with respect to the company's long-term health. "Facebook's research tells a clear story, and it's not a happy one."
For the past several years, anti-tech crusaders on both the left and right have assured the public that Facebook is a menace, and can only be stopped via aggressive government action: antitrust legislation, Section 230 reform, and so on. Despite repeated threats, politicians never made good on their promises to do something—and yet Facebook is undeniably in a much weaker position. While it's hard to predict the future, it's even harder to picture the company mounting some massive comeback and becoming a popular trendsetter once again. Expectations that Facebook had fought its way into an unbeatable, permanent, market-dominant position suddenly look incredibly foolish.
In fact, Facebook may soon find itself in the position of needing government intervention to maintain its dominance. It's worth remembering that the company has actually come out in favor of reforming Section 230, the federal statute that limits the legal liability that online platforms face.
"I believe that Section 230 would benefit from thoughtful changes to make it work better for people, but identifying a way forward is challenging given the chorus of people arguing—sometimes for contradictory reasons—that the law is doing more harm than good," noted Zuckerberg during a March 2021 appearance before Congress.
Of course, tinkering with the liability protections enjoyed by social media sites could actually help Facebook stave off competition: As long as the company remains the largest social media site, its armies of moderators might be better prepared to deal with increased moderation demands than smaller rivals like Twitter. Facebook is also better positioned to lobby and steer whatever new governmental agency arises to enforce a modified version of Section 230. All those who support Facebook's bid for ongoing relevance should want the company to hand-pick the members of a new federal bureaucracy tasked with regulating Big Tech's policies; on the other hand, anyone who thinks the company should face free and fair competition might prefer to leave the matter out of the government's hands.
My new book, Tech Panic, is subtitled Why We Shouldn't Fear Facebook and the Future. The events of the past few weeks provide additional, concrete reasons. Zuckerberg's platform is not in control of our lives, our economy, or our democracy, and the mainstream media's cynical attempts to convince the public otherwise should be easier to dismiss in light of recent events.