Breda O’Brien: Facebook may be liberal, but its gospel is consumerism
Hundreds of millions are being influenced by this hugely powerful company
Like it or not: “This giant company [Facebook] is now the major source of news for many people.” Photograph: Getty Images
What price do we pay for social media? This week, Gizmodo, a popular design and information technology blog, claimed that former Facebook contractors told them Facebook routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservatives and “injected” news stories that were not trending at all.
Facebook claims to be a neutral space, where trending topics and news are determined by algorithms. Such a reassuring word, algorithm, with all its connotations of mathematical and scientific objectivity. Except that algorithms are designed by people, and in Facebook’s case the people employed by them appear to have predictable world views – allegedly left-leaning but also completely tied to producing company profits.
Facebook says it investigated Gizmodo’s claims of bias and found them to be false. The company claims it merely reflects trends, and analyses them in order to sell advertising. But most people have only the faintest glimmer of how relentlessly Facebook analyses their preferences in order to maximise its revenue.
And what revenue! In the first quarter this year it tripled its net income to $1.5 billion (€1.33 billion). Some 1.65 billion people use it on a monthly basis.
Think about that level of influence. Facebook has an overview of all the connections that a Facebook user has, so if someone likes or shares particular material that material is bumped up on the news feeds of all the people connected to that user. This produces an echo chamber where people are less and less exposed to contrary ideas and therefore may begin to believe that all reasonable people share the same views.
Liberal world view
This seems to be the opposite problem from what Gizmodo’s sources claimed – that people are being actively steered away from conservative issues. Because if the echo-chamber theory is the problem, Facebook would be as likely to be reinforcing conservative views as the opposite.
Except that this would ignore the fact that the majority of Facebook users are likely to be young, and the young generally have a liberal view of the world. So do many of the people who are employed by Facebook.
It also ignores the fact that Facebook promotes certain viewpoints, such as taking a stance on last year’s same-sex marriage referendum by hosting events for employees and for others involved in the technology industry.
This giant company is now the major source of news for many people. According to Gizmodo, an estimated 600 million people see a news story on Facebook every week, and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chairman and chief executive, has said that he wants it to be “the primary news experience that people have”.
In Ireland we have quite a narrow spectrum of editorial viewpoints in our news media. But at least you can compare how one radio station covered a story with how another one covered it.
How, though, do you compare my personalised news feed with your personalised news feed, and to what can we compare the impact of Facebook? It is the biggest player by far in social media.
Humans are social animals who like to fit in. Given that Zuckerberg said recently that the average person spends 50 minutes a day online using Facebook and its other platforms, such as Instagram and Messenger, this means people are being subjected to powerful influences for a significant chunk of the day.
Perhaps the main message that Facebook reinforces is consumerism. After all, in order to keep on generating its mind-boggling profits, it has to continue to sell advertising tailored to each user. But the key message of advertising is simple: you are lacking something and we have a product or service to fill that gap. When the product or service predictably fails to satisfy, we can point you to another product to give a quick fix.
Our entire capitalist economic system is built on selling people things that they often don’t really need, to fix problems that cannot be solved by possessions.
It’s a model that fails to recognise the limits of natural resources, or that many of the products we buy are produced by people living in the developing world where working conditions are often dire.
Zuckerberg may hold liberal views on some issues, but in order to continue generating profit he has to reinforce the central gospel of consumerism.
So while his employees may fret, as they did recently, about whether they had a moral obligation to try to stop Donald Trump being elected president, in fact they are part of the ugly culture that spawned Trump.
In the Trump world view, everything is subjugated to the need to generate profit and power. Success is measured in visibility, influence and wealth, not in consistency, courtesy or kindness.
Whether it be insecure teenagers editing their image to gain maximum numbers of “likes”, or adults unconsciously consuming news that has been tailored to reinforce their prejudices, it all stems from worship of the mighty dollar.
After all, when a service is free, remember something is still being sold, and in this case, it is you. That’s the Facebook world view: our primary value is as beings who buy and who, in turn, are sold.