the facebook papers

Planet Facebook

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Facebook/Getty Images

This week, Mark Zuckerberg did his best to distract from the Facebook Papers — an immense trove of damaging information leaked by the whistleblower Frances Haugen — by announcing that the social network was forming a new parent company called Meta. Zuckerberg said the company was making a long-term pivot to the “metaverse,” a kind of layer of digitality over real life — think virtual meetings with avatars and augmented-reality glasses, stitching the physical you into a pixelated world.

Facebook wants to be the backbone of that new virtual space, not just in software but hardware too. It’s the same totalizing perspective that has driven the company to become the world’s dominant digital public space. It remains to be seen whether the metaverse will capture people’s imaginations — and judging from the widespread mockery of Zuckerberg’s creepy unveiling, that seems questionable — but the truth is that Facebook has already succeeded in layering itself over nearly all of humanity.

It seems obvious to say that that Facebook is too big. That’s true, but companies like Apple and Amazon are bigger, with more wealth and more employees. What the Facebook Papers show is that it is scale, even more so than size, that makes Facebook so dangerous.

Consider India, home to more than a billion people and Facebook’s largest market. Among the many damning revelations in the Facebook Papers was that it was moderating content in only a handful of the subcontinent’s 22 official languages. That stark lack of capacity contributed to the growing tide of anti-Muslim violence under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

And even that modicum of oversight was late in coming. Until 2018, Facebook had no tools to detect hate speech in Hindi, and nothing in Bengali until 2020. Just to be clear, those are, respectively, the third and seventh most spoken languages on earth. It’s hard to decide if it is the hubris or the neglect that is more staggering.

That’s just one country. When you consider the fact that Facebook is the de facto internet in many parts of the globe, its role becomes as absurd as it is dangerous. Perusing the litany of revelations in the leaked documents, it starts to dawn on you just how completely, utterly weird it is that a private company on America’s west coast should be involved in social unrest and communal prejudice in India, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Britain.

As the company loves to tout, Facebook is closing in on 2 billion daily users and 3 billion monthly active users. That doesn’t include the legions of people who might not use Facebook but do turn to WhatsApp or Instagram, the former being a central mode of communication in Asia. Facebook’s user base comprises over a third of the world’s population — which is even more surprising when you consider that another third isn’t even online yet. Only 3 billion people were alive in total in 1960.

The thing about that kind of scale is that it veers into what philosophers would call the sublime: It beggars human imagination, escapes it, overwhelms. Even for the most vociferous critics of Facebook it becomes hard to keep track of what the company does, right and wrong, simply because there is so damn much of it.

The seriousness of Facebook’s various flaws is only compounded by their expanse. In Ethiopia, misinformation and extremism on Facebook added fuel to the fire of ethnic violence in the country’s ongoing civil war. As in India, language was an issue: Facebook did not have any software that could detect hate speech in Amharic and Oromo, Ethiopia’s two most common languages.

Language is only part of the problem, however. As reported by Rest of World, Facebook also cowed to the hard-right concerns of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party and its fascist RSS wing. Posts by the latter, which compared Muslims to pigs and spread misinformation about the Quran, were not flagged due to “political sensitivities.” Moreover, the surge in recent years in conspiracy theories about “love jihad” — the idea that Muslims convert Hindu women through interfaith marriage — often went unchecked on the platform simply due to a lack of sufficient investment.

In Vietnam, the government threatened to shut off access to Facebook if it did not censor anti-state posts. Zuckerberg was personally involved in complying, despite his public free-speech rhetoric. While of course all global companies have to deal with local laws, it doesn’t make it any less alarming that a solitary CEO has the ability to sway the political currents of so many countries.

One could go on: about Facebook’s slowness in responding to human trafficking in the Philippines, or that CNN found human trafficking on Instagram as recently as this month; or the removal of posts by Palestinians amid the violence in the region earlier this year. It is precisely the endlessness of it all that is the point. As any scholar will tell you, a key part of making analysis possible is managing the scope of the object of study. Facebook stymies both oversight and understanding because of its unimaginable scale.

Unfortunately, in Congress and other legislatures around the world, talk of regulating Facebook is laughably behind the curve. While lawmakers weren’t looking, the company became the social-media infrastructure of the world — in charge of messaging, commerce, political discourse, news distribution, and more — and there has been no genuine reckoning with that fact or a legitimate proposal for an alternative.

It has never been clearer that this is far, far too much for any one company to manage, and especially a company with an unusually powerful CEO. Facebook’s scale is both ridiculous and a threat, not just to social stability, but also to our ability to imagine something better.

The Facebook Papers are a reminder of the irreducibility of a massively complex world. The very best of algorithms and an army of employees cannot hope to understand it, let alone responsibly oversee its online communications. The world is simply too much, and Facebook, in this one respect at least, not enough.

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