Is it too late to stop Facebook from destroying democracy?

Facebook started out by inspiring admiration for its ability to connect people and help them trace down long-lost relatives, former school mates and old flames.

But as it has grown bigger and bigger, Facebook increasingly looks like a black hole that swallows up small businesses, livelihoods, and, in the end, democracy itself.

For a long time, big businesses seemed more than happy with Facebook’s business model and have directed a big chunk of their advertising money to it.

Facebook offered them the illusion of “measurability” – how many people saw their advertisement seemed to matter more than what kind of content their advertisement was shown against.

They’re finally waking up to the damage that “chasing the clicks” can do to society and, ultimately, to their own businesses – but is it too late?

Some of the best-known brands in the world launched an advertising boycott on Facebook in July, as criticism against Facebook’s lack of action in the face of hate speech on the social network intensified.

In response, Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, said the social network will tag posts that are potentially harmful, but will leave them up if they are “deemed newsworthy”.

This shows once again that Facebook’s problem is the same it has always been – its business model puts democracy in danger. This is not something that the social network has done deliberately or maliciously, but neither is it something that it seems willing to change.

Facebook, despite its insistence that it is just a tech platform for content, is in fact a publisher. However, unlike traditional publishers, it does not hire editors to check the content it distributes for accuracy and prevent lies and fabrications from being published.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

The same is true for other social media networks, of course. What sets Facebook apart is its sheer size and the way it has made it almost impossible for people to live without it.

Local and even national authorities increasingly organise various events on Facebook. All big organisations make sure they have a presence there and, according to anecdotal evidence, pay attention more readily to people on Facebook than to those who contact them by classical means.

Facebook reigns supreme

Besides, even the private lives of individuals are nowadays dominated and even largely controlled by Facebook. What they see, what they read, who they speak to is largely determined by this company that does not seem to be accountable to anybody.

(At this point I must admit to some less than good personal experience with Facebook, of which I am no longer a customer. I never had a personal account on Facebook and yet the company tried to force me to create one in order to maintain access to my business account.)

The company’s business model is to get as many people as it can hooked on its content for as long as they can. It pays little regard to the quality of that content or its effect on users.

This is why Facebook is so dangerous to democracy. Various conspiracy theories — some of them started as jokes, but others as attempts at manipulating public opinion by various, more or les sinister entities – have spread on the social network like wildfire, with little or no attempt to back them up with any sort of proof or counterbalance them by facts.

Spending more and more time on Facebook, many people abandoned traditional media, which either resorted to sensationalising stories in order to “go viral” (oh, the irony) or simply closed down, unable to compete.

So how could Facebook stop harming democracy? It would take a profound overhaul of its business model, which I doubt the company will want to undertake.

Facebook should simply admit that it is in fact a publisher and operate like one, with all the costs that this entails.

But it will not do this without being put under pressure by regulators and advertisers. At the end of the day, it comes down to employing real humans to do real work, for which they get paid real money. This adds to the costs and reduces profit.

Shareholders may not like this. But advertisers are beginning to wake up to the fact that if they don’t force Facebook to reform, they will become its next victims.