In recent years, not a month has gone by without yet another unsettling exposé of Facebook’s content-moderation policies and corporate machinations. One report from February explained how Facebook moderators can end up believing the conspiracies they’re hired to weed out. In another case, Facebook’s top executives hired lobbyists to present some of its critics as extremists. Facebook’s platform and subsidiaries have even been linked to the incitement of genocide in Myanmar and deadly lynch mobs in India.
Not so long ago, in the days when using proto-social media meant dialing up to a CompuServe or AOL chat room, we never could have imagined (those of us old enough to remember that time, at least) that the name of a company like Facebook would appear in the headlines of breaking stories about geopolitics. But in 2019, it’s an everyday occurrence.
Facebook runs the world’s biggest social media platform. It also runs Instagram, the world’s second biggest social media platform, and several large messaging platforms, including WhatsApp. It has become perhaps the most important de-facto news-delivery platform in the world. While journalists and academics often focus on Twitter (because that’s where they conduct their arguments), it is Facebook that has a chokehold on how ordinary people communicate, manage their friendships, and learn about what is happening in the world. And all the while, Facebook is scraping data about your relationships and contacts, feeding you targeted ads, and profiling you to determine which content will keep you more engaged and emotionally dependent on its feed.
One of the few places where Facebook does not have dominant market penetration is mainland China, which places strict controls on foreign tech companies. Its market is instead dominated by WeChat, a compound app that acts as a combination of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, and also allows the Chinese authorities to censor content that is critical of the government, or otherwise incompatible with Beijing’s desire for societal “harmony.”
WeChat provides a window into what may well become our own future here in the West. The app has become almost indispensable for city life, as it now serves as a platform for a majority of small payments. Even loan applications now go through WeChat. Writing for the science publication Nautilus, Barclay Bram reported that WeChat is not only ubiquitous, but virtually omniscient: “Before 10 on a normal day in [the city of] Chengdu, WeChat knows roughly when I wake up, who has messaged me and who I message, what we talk about. It knows my bank details, my address, my coffee preference in the morning. It knows my biometric information; it knows the very contours of my face.”
“But this isn’t all it knows,” Bram wrote. “I use WeChat to pay my rent. I use it to pay for my utilities. I use it to top up my phone credit. I use WeChat to pay for the metro system. I use it to scan QR codes on the back of shared-bike schemes throughout the city. I use it to call cabs. It knows where I go and how I go there.”
WeChat’s expansion from a social media platform to a payment provider likely will provide a model for Facebook’s own expansion. And thanks to the rise of cryptocurrencies, the company likely won’t be encumbered by many of the hurdles that once might have beset a media company seeking to jack into the retail-commerce backbone of the world’s major industrialized nations. Indeed, it won’t even have to deal with the fluctuating valuations of legacy cryptocurrencies, because Facebook is setting up its own currency, called Libra. The Financial Timeshas called this development “disruptive.” But that’s euphemistic. Given the company’s existing level of political and social influence, the creation of a global currency that would answer to Facebook is a potentially catastrophic idea.