So yesterday Facebook was hit by a major server outage which left both users and workers unable to use Facebook for about six hours. Instagram and Whatsapp, which are both owned by Facebook, were also affected and were also down for much of the evening. At the same time, or at least on the same day, it seemed the whitstleblower behind a series of leaks concerning Facebook has revealed her identity, Frances Haugen, and gave an interview on 60 Minutes to detail her grievances with the company.
When the outage happened and I looked at the coverage of Frances Haugen’s interview, I had almost thought that Facebook’s server shut down in tandem with the revelations, but it seems to me like that might have been a coincidence. But having said that, there is something I have to say about some aspect of what Haugen is trying to say.
Haugen blames Facebook for the spread of ethinc violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma, arguing that the platform was used to “foment division and incite offline violence”, as well as attributing the January 6th riot on Capitol Hill to a change in its news feed algorithm. To be honest, when I see talk of Facebook being used to “foment division and violence”, I remember something very different from the not too distant past. I am at least old enough to remember what was called the “Arab Spring”, a succession of protests and revolutions that spread across the Arab world and resulted in the overthrow of authoritarian leaders, including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Back then, Facebook was being praised for its role in those revolutions, spreading information that the authoritarian governments couldn’t control and leading to their downfall. That was the discourse on Facebook that I remember. Now that the same medium has been blamed for the ascent of Trump and his movement since almost immediately after his election in 2016, the exact same thing that made Facebook so endearing for the liberal consensus is now the worst thing about it.
The thing about mainstream discourse about Facebook is that liberals want everything that makes Facebook great (for them at least), but without any of the negative side-effects that necessarily come with it. They want a platform where anyone can spread information that they approve of on the back that it leads to political change they like, but without that necessarily coming with the ability to spread information they don’t like. I know the knee-jerk reaction of liberals is to talk about right-wing media and all that (as though Facebook isn’t literally controlled by right-wing tech-bros), but you should see the censorship of left-wing media that takes place. I tried to post a link to an article from People and Nature, an eco-socialist blog, to Facebook to bring attention to some much-needed and overlooked discourse about the errors of mainstream solutions to climate change, and Facebook would not let me do it because they thought it was spam. Indeed, in the run-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, several left-wing users were put on a restriction list, before outright purging left-wing accounts. Left-wing content has also been subject to “extremist content” warnings in the last few months. This is the snapshot of the sort of regime of controlled information that liberal critics of Facebook desire, and as valid as her aims might be, Haugen should be careful what she wishes for.