It may stretch plausibility to suggest that it has more clout, that it has a more pertinent presence than any democratic, despotic or even religious entity active today. However, if Mark Zuckerberg’s coyly named “social media” corporation continues to grow at the pace it has over the last 13 years, consuming one rival after another in one multi-billion dollar buy-out after another, that argument may be won by the end of this decade. It will certainly be won by the end of the next.
Facebook is used by nearly two billion people — more than one-in-four of the world’s population. At the end of March, 1.28bn people used it to interact in myriad ways every day. It has 18,770 employees, about 1,500 of whom are based in Ireland. Revenues grew from $7.87bn in 2013 to $27.64bn in 2016 — almost a factor of four in three years.
It epitomises a modern, transnational behemoth almost beyond the control of governments. It can, more or less, operate in its parallel universe where it sets terms of engagement. It may not be powerful enough — yet — to bring down a government or sway an election but it can certainly help empower those who might. It controls vast quantities of data of unimaginable scope and depth and wields consequential influence. The corporation has spectacular ambitions as Zuckerberg’s “state of the union” manifesto, published in February indicated. Because of his organisation’s all-pervasive presence, it is an unaligned, unelected arbiter of public taste and morals — and immune to the consequences of its policies.
In recent weeks it has been an ancillary to appalling behaviour. A Thai man livestreamed himself killing his 11-month-old daughter and then himself. In Cleveland, a man aged 74 was murdered by a stranger who streamed the shooting live. As if that was not bad enough the site has been accused of being a playground for misogynists and racists and a conduit for destabilising fake news, threats, crudity and bad taste.
The publication in recent days, by The Guardian, of Facebook’s in-house rules on controversial issues will cause controversy but most of all it underlines what an immense social force the private firm has become in a little over a decade.
Facebook will not remove videos or images of “violent death”, abortion or self-harm because the Californian giant does not want to censor its users. A free for all, so? Leaked documents reveal that Facebook moderators — there are 4,500 to monitor nearly two billion users — have been told to delete controversial material only in limited circumstances. Videos of abortions were permitted , the documents claimed, as long as there is no nudity. The website will allow people to livestream attempts to self-harm because it “doesn’t want to censor or punish people in distress”.
This one-size-fits-all response seems indifferent to varying cultural beliefs that might not support such latitude. Equally, it is very difficult to believe that showing traumatised individuals self-harming might not encourage rather than dissuade others from doing the same. Violence is, after all, the ultimate expression of failure and any sane, caring society would do all it can to marginalise it.
Despite that, Facebook’s role as a self-appointed guardian of the public good is a bigger concern. These issues should be decided in parliaments, not in boardrooms. If this disclosure provokes a unified, albeit belated, response from, say, the European Union, and leads to the kind of controls imposed on traditional media for Facebook and similar organisations then it would be a step in the right direction — and probably just the first of many. Advancing technology is changing our world but unless we manage this particular evolution we will lose far more than we might gain. Facebook must understand that the influence it enjoys carries great responsibilities.