Has there ever been a more fitting corporate meltdown than that endured by Facebook over the last two years? After perhaps swinging an election or two in 2016, the company has been dragged bawling through the mud more times than an Medieval Estonian peasant caught stealing horses.
There have been non-apologies and listening tours, rebrands and reach-outs, Senate committee hearings, slap-downs and back-pedals, faked humility and conspiracy theories, inquests and campaigns and furious denunciations, ponderous op-eds and stock-price massacres, would-be trust-busters on the make, crisis management PR operations and parade ground about-faces. There have been great, heaving plates of humble pie and the appointment of the British politician Nick Clegg (a specialist in apologies) to help eat it all.
Just a few short years ago Mark Zuckerberg was maneuvering for the presidency. Today the guy can barely take a dump without issuing a heartfelt apology statement. It’s natural to laugh at these people, natural because the impregnable humorlessness and maniacal ambitions of Valley tycoons like Zuck and his number two Sheryl Sandberg prompt a very human desire to see them slip.
Like radioactive fallout, all of these shenanigans rained down on Facebook, leaving a thick layer of toxic suspicion over the company. Before 2016 Facebook only needed to consider questions of expansion: how big, how fast, how many? Today the questions they face are all about survival. What role or form will they take in order to endure?
Zuckerberg always said his mission was to connect the world. Now he may end up policing it.
Last week Facebook erased 289 pages and 75 accounts from its network. Combined, these pages had about 790,000 followers, which is a little bit more than the number The New York Review of Books has. Beginning operations back in 2013, the pages, which pushed content at 13 former Soviet-bloc countries, sound harmless enough. According to The Guardian:
‘One of the deleted Facebook pages was dedicated to appeal to Latvian food lovers. The page mainly featured pictures of chocolate cakes lifted from Instagram.’
Other pages covered ‘famous Georgians’, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Latvian sports. One was entirely dedicated to the Tajik rice-based dish called (appetizingly) ‘plov’.
The pages – ostensibly independent – were in fact run by a Russian state-owned news agency called Sputnik. Slipped in between the shots of glistening ‘plov’ was shadier content; according to Facebook, topics included ‘anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements and anti-corruption’. This kind of gaming the system, what the Digital Forensic Research Lab calls ‘a covert promotion operation’, is widespread.
It is striking to see Facebook engaged in the kind of information warfare against Russia that used to be the preserve of the CIA. It is even more striking to consider that none of this was supposed to happen at all. The internet was supposed to be free.
Less than a decade ago, in January 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toddled up to a lectern at The Newseum in Washington DC. The speech she delivered that day was called ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom’ and it makes for somewhat bittersweet reading now that the weeds of history have grown all over it.
The core assumption of the speech was that online censorship and control act as a barrier to innovation and growth. ‘Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.’ Just before the Arab Spring began, here was a barely disguised warning to the authoritarians of the world: grant American internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon access to your markets.
‘Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks… With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.’
For Clinton the internet was simply a tool. It could do bad things, like spreading child pornography or aiding human traffickers. But in the right hands, it could do good things, like spread mobile banking to the Congo or let the women of Afghanistan upload their selfies to Instagram. A fitting symbol for this glorious new age of freedom arrived in 2011 when an Egyptian father named his daughter ‘Facebook’ in honor of the company that had done so much to topple the despised Hosni Mubarak.
Viewed from Beijing and Moscow, Clinton’s agenda appeared as yet another American attempt to meddle in their domestic politics through cyber means. They then, as Columbia’s Jack Goldsmith explains, pursued their own ‘Internet Sovereignty’ agenda, doubling down on firewalls, cyber-weapons and troll armies. What Clinton dubbed the ‘freedom to connect’ was not something Vladimir Putin or the Chinese Politburo wanted. Even the EU was suspicious.
The openness of the US internet is what makes it so dangerous. Now barely a day passes without reports of data theft fiascos and cybersecurity howlers, information compromises and cyberattacks in which US firms and consumers lose billions of dollars. Culturally, the internet has not, as Clinton put it, provided ‘an on-ramp to modernity.’ Instead the networks swarm with average bigotry, chauvinism, jingoism, fraudsters, grifters, chancers and terrible YouTube covers of even worse songs.
As always with Clinton, the whole mess is somebody else’s fault. ‘I think that the companies themselves are going to have to be held accountable,’ she told Recode. ‘They would have to recognize that what’s happening now is far beyond anything Mark Zuckerberg thought about in his dorm at Harvard.’
Poor Zuck. He probably never did think that one day he would desperately be getting his best people to suspend every ‘plov’ fan page in Tajikistan.