Facebook is not a pencil

Defenders of tech companies often rely on simplistic arguments — and so do their critics. But it's Facebook themselves that has the biggest responsibility for the impact of their technology.

Facebook and other tech giants have been in the hot seat this month for the role their platforms may have played in aiding foreign attempts to disrupt our elections and stoke partisan animosity. As such, this is an important time to consider how much responsibility these platforms have for the actions of their users.

One common defense of Facebook in response to this question is that they are simply a tool that can be used for both good and evil. Similar to how a pencil can be used to write both love letters and death threats, Facebook’s defenders say, social media is merely a technology with no inherent moral valence. I’ve also heard people comparing Facebook to the telephone: We don’t get mad at the telephone for enabling criminals to communicate as they plot nefarious deeds; we accept that as a communication technology, the telephone is merely a medium which can be used for almost anything. So why do we hold Facebook to a different standard?

The first thing to consider is the multi-faceted nature of Facebook’s role in modern society. In some sense, they are like the telephone, in that Facebook is a communication platform that allows friends to post and reach each other’s content. But they are also much more than this. They are a web host and platform for businesses to post updates and content. They are also an increasingly important source of news for the majority of Americans — news which gets filtered and selectively shown to users based on algorithmic sorting. And Facebook is also a massive advertising platform, which has propelled the company into the top 5 most valuable publicly-traded companies in the United States (which ranks them higher than Walmart, Exxon Mobile, and JPMorgan Chase).

It’s important to keep these separate roles top-of-mind as Facebook comes under scrutiny in the coming months. For example, the current debate in congress around “regulating Facebook” has nothing to do with controlling what people post or how their algorithm works, but, rather, is common sense regulation around labeling political advertisements online. At the same time, the current moment is an important one to take a step back and ask what role the whole of Facebook plays in our society and — more importantly — what responsibility the platform has to manage the impact of its technology.

Not all technologies are created equal

Let’s start by dispensing with the simplistic pencil analogy. Consider the case of dynamite, which is itself “merely a technology”. Dynamite and other explosives can, of course, be used to cause great damage. However, there are also many industrial and benign uses of dynamite such as mining and demolition. Despite the legitimate uses of technologies like dynamite, we consider it fairly uncontroversial that they should be regulated.¹ This is because, as a society, we recognize that if explosives were used malevolently, the scale of the damage they could cause is large enough to warrant an abundance of caution.

I am certainly not saying that Facebook is as imminently dangerous and life-threatening as TNT. However, the fact remains that many technologies exist that — despite the fact that they have no inherent moral value — we deem potentially dangerous enough to be particularly careful with. And, as the revelations over the past year have made clear — that up to 130 million Americans were exposed to posts placed by Russian agents attempting to influence the 2016 elections — it is no longer a tenable position to believe Facebook is not, at least potentially, a dangerous technology.

And this brings us to an important characteristic of Facebook which makes it categorically different from technologies of previous eras: its unprecedented scale. When Facebook makes a change to their platform, it has the potential to affect billions of people almost instantaneously. No single pencil manufacturer, telephone network, or dynamite company ever had such scale at their fingertips. And importantly, Facebook not only uses its scale for its own purposes, but it allows 3rd parties to leverage the Facebook platform to their own ends. Consider that a 30-second ad spot in the Superbowl — which, conveniently, has a viewership record of 130 million — is $5 million. This is likely an order of magnitude larger than both the direct cost of paid advertisements and the cost of manually seeding manipulative organic posts on Facebook that Russia incurred during last year’s election. If nothing else, 2016 proved that Facebook is an extremely cost effective propaganda tool for reaching mass audiences. Such concentration of influence is unprecedented.

Digital Networks are Natural

I want to emphasize that the concentration of influence on Facebook is not itself a bad thing. While some critics have compared Facebook to monopolies of past eras like Standard Oil and New York Central Railroad, this analogy (much like the pencil comparison) is far too simplistic. In the past, when companies like industries like oil and rail grew more concentrated, this was essentially a unilaterally bad outcome for small businesses and consumers. However, as Facebook grows larger, the potential value of every person using it actually increases. And this is an important point that far too often gets overlooked, which is that Facebook does bring immense value to both its users individually and our economy as a whole. While its ad targeting capabilities have been under attack from many critics, these same capabilities have ushered in a new era of opportunity for direct-to-consumer businesses. Many of the most innovative and adored brands today would not have gotten off the ground without the unique opportunity provided by Facebook’s advertising platform.² Given these unique network dynamics, it’s naive to suggest applying century-old monopoly-busting policies to modern tech giants

So where do we go if regulation is not the answer? It’s certainly time for journalists, critics, and academics to ask how we can avoid abuse and misuse of market power in the modern tech industry. But it’s more important for Facebook to start asking these questions themselves.

The design of its own demise

One last aspect of Facebook that makes it uniquely different from previous generations of technologies is how much of its impact is designed. There are many facts about the world that Facebook has no control over: the secular increase in political polarization over the past four decades, our inherent human foibles that make us click on sensational headlines, and the intentions of foreign governments to disrupt our civil discourse, to name a few. However there is no law of physics that guarantees that Facebook must exacerbate these problems. When you open Facebook, every single pixel on your screen was put there deliberately.⁴ In principle, Facebook has essentially limitless flexibility over how they choose to use those pixels. Facebook certainly faces some constraints when making changes to their existing platform, but the company has been using the “we’re just a platform” excuse for far too long.

For better or worse, Facebook is the new public square. Much like architects have to factor in gravity and structural mechanics when designing public spaces in the real world, it’s time that Facebook start taking into account the flaws of human nature that technology tends to exacerbate. Recently Mark Zuckerberg indicated he is serious about ensuring Facebook is a force for good in society. But as he heads back to the drafting table, let’s hope he is thinking about doing more than changing the window dressing.


¹ Indeed, among the four categories under the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, explosives are the most heavily regulated (despite being responsible for the fewest deaths compared to the other three).

² This includes “larger” brands like Warby Parker, Harry’s, Allbirds, and Everlane. But I’m also referring to the new long tail of niche businesses which, by definition, will never be mass market — things like custom medical scrub embroidery or tailor-made goggles for your dog — but nonetheless are achieving unprecedented levels of success thanks to Facebook.

³ On top of that, I would encourage many of Facebook’s critics to think through the implications of passing regulations against Facebook. In particular, consider that regulatory oversight is under the purview of the executive branch — which, last time I checked, is headed by a censorial, narcissistic demagogue (whose policies may not align with those of Facebook’s progressive critics).

⁴ Of course, Facebook does not control who your friends are or what they share. But they design the news feed, its algorithm, and the incentives that drive it. And this is precisely my point: they have massive influence over what people see. To deny this is to abdicate responsibility.

Originally published at alex.miller.im.