When Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America earlier this month, he spoke aspirationally of pulling the country together, putting aside divisions and focusing on unified communities. It’s a grand ambition and it hasn’t taken Facebook long to tap into the same theme as part of the company’s ongoing application to be re-admitted into the pantheon of responsible businesses.
After years of standing by while its platform was hijacked to spread partisan doctrines by one activist group or another - left, right and everything in between - and giving politicians a free pass to publish any old drivel they chose to pass off as the truth, the company is now big into helping us all to build a wider community in which we can co-exist and all feel we belong, like a global Facebook family. But are we talking the Waltons or the Addams family?
In the prepared remarks of the normally less-than-super-articulate CEO Mark Zuckerberg, this is one of the most important things that his company can do for the good of all, a sentiment that would bring a tear to a glass eye - or it would, if we hadn't been down this route of spurious blandishments many times before.
Anway, he - or whoever wrote the presentation - says that they have it all worked out in terms of how this is structured to meet our needs:
Our social fabric is made of multiple different layers through which we get our social support. First, we have friends and family. That’s the most personal layer. Then, we have communities we’re a part of where we feel a sense of purpose and belonging, explore interests, develop skills, grow as individuals, and then meet new people. And then, finally, there’s the safety net that society and government provide.
Zuckerberg goes on to argue that ’in many parts of the world”, there’s been “an unfortunate decline in community participation” over the last several decades. This is where, according to Zuck/Clegg/the marketing team/the PR firm/whoever, Facebook is here to help:
This isn’t something that we can solve alone, but I think we can help. So, now that we’ve helped billions of people stay connected with friends and family, helping everyone find and participate in communities that are meaningful to them has been our next goal. We even updated our mission a few years ago to reflect this, making it, give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.
The story so far
How’s that working out? Well, according to Facebook’s own community metrics for the month of December 2020, around 2.6 billion people used at least one of the firm’s services on a daily basis, a figure that rises to 3.3 billion using at least one every month. Meanwhile Facebook daily active users reached 1.84 billion, up 11% year-on-year.
This increase in demand is something that Facebook is working to serve, says Zuckerberg, because using Facebook matters to people, it really, really does:
Today, more than 600 million people are now members of a group on Facebook that they consider to be meaningful in their lives. This has grown steadily over time. I hear all the time from people who are in parenting groups that there are major resources to navigate raising kids, or from people who found a group that shares the same health condition and they can lean on that community for knowledge and support, or from people who’ve moved to a new place and joined local groups to meet people and get situated.
That’s a social mission right there and it’s one that Facebook reckons it is the very company to meet head on, he adds:
Our product focus now is to develop this community infrastructure beyond feeds and message boards, to help people build and run full self-sustaining community institutions. We’re building tools to help groups get things done together and provide support for people that spans messaging, video chat, and even communities own websites. And we’re exploring different ways to raise funds, including donations, merchandise, and membership fees, to help group leaders support their communities’ operations and hire people for different roles that are needed to build sustainable communities for the long term.
Of course, that’s all good and well - and clearly there are benefits to be had from online communities, particularly over the past year when digital collaboration spaces have been among the few safe communal meeting areas for people to prevent severe isolation, which itself has the potential to have wide-ranging damaging impact on society.
But the flipside to all this 'societal saviour' posturing is the question of what happens to prevent communities of bad actors benefiting from the same platform? Is Facebook ready to deliver on its responsibilities as well as its happy-clappy aspirations to metaphorically buy the world a Coke and furnish it with love?
Inevitably the boxes are ticked here with Zuckerberg trotting out all the ‘grown-up company’ assurances that he’s been practicing for the past couple of years:
We need to make sure that the communities that people connect with are healthy and positive and that’s something that we’ve been focused on for a while now. One way, of course, that we do this is by taking down groups that break our rules against things like violence or hate speech. In September, we shared that we had removed more than 1 million groups in the last year alone.
But, there are also a lot of groups that we may not want to encourage people to join, even if they don’t violate our policies. So, for example, we stopped recommending civic and political groups in the US ahead of the elections.
This is where it all gets a lot more complicated and allowing a stream of ‘right on’ platitudes to go unchallenged isn’t healthy. If Facebook is to decide which groups it just doesn’t want to encourage people to join, how does that determination come about? If a group isn’t in breach of Ts & Cs, then what qualitative judgements come into play? And are those consistent or do they vary from person-to-person or according to the day of the week or what?
According to Zuck, Facebook is continuing to “fine tune how this works” which isn’t reassuring as he also commits to keeping civic and political groups out of recommendations for the long-term and to do this on a global basis:
This is a continuation of work we’ve been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversation and communities.
Again a question is begged: what’s the definition of divisive? Are we never to argue? If you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat, we can surely have a heated debate without it being deemed divisive or resulting in a failed insurrectionist attack on democracy? Political debate is a critical part of any democracy and those conversations involved can be robust and forceful without being threatening.
If you turn around and threaten to string me up in a noose as part of that debate, then clearly you’re being more than divisive and there needs to be an intervention. But if it’s just the ‘rough and tumble’ of political debate, then where are red lines we need to be aware of? Or does it just depend on what flack Facebook is getting that day on any particular issue and how soon Apologist-in-Chief Nick Clegg decides it’s now too hot to handle?
The way Zuckerberg pitches it, the approach comes across as a ‘scorched earth’ policy of just never talking about politics so that (a) things don’t get out of hand and (b) Facebook doesn’t have the burden of being an arbiter and hacking off everyone in turn over time. And this what you, the Facebook user, want, he insists:
One of the top pieces of feedback that we are hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.
As Basil Fawlty famously put it, ‘Don’t mention the war!’.
The trouble is that once again Facebook’s pitching a position and sending Zuckerberg out to talk about it with his ‘look at me doing all this adulting’ face on, when the details of how to put it into practice aren’t there, as Zuck himself admits:
We’re also currently considering steps that we can take to reduce the amount of political content in newsfeed as well. We’re still working through exactly the best ways to do this.
But hey, we thought we’d just announce it anyway and see if we can get some gold stars for being all responsible and stuff. But don’t ask too many questions, because Nick hasn’t told us that bit yet.
So the end result is another muddle on the multi-year ‘mea culpa’ tour. Look at us, we’re going to be all community-focused and bring the world together…so long as you users don’t go spoiling it by talking about politics. What’s being called for is a ‘have cake and eat it’ scenario, as Zuck ‘argues’:
We’ll have to balance this carefully because we have a deep commitment to free expression. I believe that if people want to be able to discuss the stuff or join groups, they should certainly be able to do that. But, I just don’t think that it’s serving the community particularly well to be recommending that content right now.
So the tour goes on. Just remember - don't mention the war! (Or privacy. Or Russian influence. Or Cambridge Analytica. Or election interference. Or...)