United States of Facebook: new methods of online governance

On: September 22, 2019
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As of June 2019, Facebook boasts almost 2.5 billion monthly active users (Company Info | Facebook Newsroom). If it were a country, Facebook would be the biggest in the world by a large margin. However, everybody knows that it is just a social networking site, right? So why is Facebook trying to emulate the way in which states work?

Facebook is planning to launch a sort of “Supreme Court” – dubbed the Oversight Board – as a means to combat certain arduous aspects such as preventing hate speech or violent content from running rampant on the platform (Cox). The Oversight Board Charter explains how this structure would work: Facebook outsources the competency of the highest court to a board that will “exercise neutral, independent judgement and render decisions impartially” (Establishing Structure and Governance for an Independent Oversight Board | Facebook Newsroom), even if it may override Facebook’s desired outcome. Although transparency is emphasized, there are two important things to keep in mind: Facebook will be funding the board, and while the membership of the board will be made public, members of individual panels “may remain anonymous to ensure the safety and independent judgement” (Establishing Structure and Governance for an Independent Oversight Board | Facebook Newsroom).

The creation of this entity poses an array of questions regarding its legitimacy in light of the long history of scandals that Facebook has been involved in. But what’s more problematic is that Mark Zuckerberg himself has described the board as a “sort of structure, almost like a Supreme Court” (Klein). If Facebook wants to become a social infrastructure focused on community (Building Global Community | Facebook) then it will have to do more than this.

Platforms and their ecosystems – Facebook’s governance

The rise of the Internet and the digitalization of almost every aspect of our lives has conducted to the rise of “platform business”, which implies that these platforms offer a framework for outside actors to build and act upon (Flyverbom et al. 7). This conceptualization is based on the fact that platforms are programmable, have particular logics and affordances which allow connections between “heterogenous actors” (Plantin et al. 294).

Within this context, van Dijck et al. argue that there seems to be a confusion between the public good and the private interests of the platforms (23). This has caused a downplaying of the role of governments in favor of “self-organization of people online” (23). But this is a reductive way of looking at platforms, as scholars have argued that they are political actors themselves (Gorwa). A more nuanced way of looking at this relationship is to “move beyond singular state-centrism” (Gorwa 3) and acknowledge that private entities can have the power to organize or regulate life. In fact, the transition to online communities has granted internet corporations the power to shape relationships (Schwarz).

In this regard, there are some issues with the way Facebook governs. First, when a submission is removed, the perpetrator does not receive a detailed explanation from the moderators (other that they have violated the Community Standards); the latter simply apply a set of criteria without regard for things such as context or precedents (Schwarz 13). Second, there is ambiguity concerning the actual rules, because the guidelines that the moderators follow are kept secret (Schwarz 14). This, however, does not mean that moderators have the freedom to remove posts to their discretion. Facebook applies what Schwarz calls rational governance: if users generate profit, governance should be executed in a way that prevents users from saying offensive things, thus making others consider leaving the platform (5).

Foucault also argued that a power which is not coercive or prohibitive, but rather continuous and atomistic would allow the individual to be controlled “in his body, in his movements” (159). In a way, Facebook employs Foucault’s “individualizing technology of power”, one that targets individuals “right up to their bodies, in their behaviour” (153), so one could argue that Facebook has a certain pervasive power that goes beyond that of moderating content.

Neoliberal normativism and Facebook

In 2019, the political climate looks extremely divided and fragmented. This is, in part, caused by the development of digital technologies, which is something that Papacharissi warned about 17 years ago. In an article from 2002 that seems to be as relevant as ever, she argued that “advertising revenue has more impact on programming than democratic ideals” (19), which one could say that is what’s actually happening right now. Facebook, threatened by the potential of losing users due to offensive content, is trying to govern rationally, under the guise of democratic values.

What does neoliberalism have to do with all of this? Considering that platforms adapted to the political culture of their time (Papacharissi), we have to look at Facebook in the context of the rise of free market ideology (Rider). Van Dijck et al. argue that Facebook has certain libertarian values “inscribed in its architecture” (27) and that it “betrays an expansive neoliberal world view” (30). While this may be ascribed to Facebook being, after all, a private company with certain governance practices, it is important not to forget that it still must obey the law.

Earlier this year, we got a glimpse at Facebook’s idea of governance with the “Facebook Manifesto”, a writing that Mark Zuckerberg addressed to the community. Rider and Murakami Wood argued that the manifesto was not just about Facebook, but it was rather an anti-political statement that underlined Facebook as the solution “to the problem of government and politics themselves” (2) in an increasingly authoritarian climate. In a sense, by publishing this manifesto, Zuckerberg tried to “absolve the corporation from legal, social, moral or economic responsibilities” (Rider and Murakami Wood 6).

Corporate centralization and responsibility

Being private entities, platforms such as Facebook do not have the responsibility of assuring free speech (Flyverbom et al. 8). Moreover, they have developed and evolved on the shoulders of what was supposed to be a decentralized network – that is, the Open Web. With the introduction of a “Supreme Court”, Facebook is starting to look more and more like a state. But we should not forget that under the discourse of self-governance and being a public value, Facebook is still a private entity that should conform to the laws of the countries in which it offers its services. Some issues should not be left to Facebook to decide on, but to competent institutions. In this sense, what should we do when Facebook’s “public interests” clash with the actual interests of the public?

Works cited

Building Global Community | Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/building-global-community/10154544292806634/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Company Info | Facebook Newsroom. https://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Cox, Kate. “Facebook Plans Launch of Its Own ‘Supreme Court’ for Handling Takedown Appeals.” Ars Technica, 18 Sept. 2019, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/09/facebook-plans-launch-of-its-own-supreme-court-for-handling-takedown-appeals/.

Foucault, Michel. “The Meshes of Power” Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography, edited by Crampton, Jeremy W., and Stuart Elden, Ashgate, 2007.

Dijck, José van, et al. The Platform Society. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Establishing Structure and Governance for an Independent Oversight Board | Facebook Newsroom. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/09/oversight-board-structure/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Flyverbom, Mikkel, et al. “The Governance of Digital Technology, Big Data, and the Internet: New Roles and Responsibilities for Business.” Business & Society, vol. 58, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 3–19. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/0007650317727540.

Gorwa, Robert. “What Is Platform Governance?” Information, Communication & Society, vol. 22, no. 6, May 2019, pp. 854–71. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/1369118X.2019.1573914.

Klein, Ezra. “Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s Hardest Year, and What Comes Next.” Vox, 2 Apr. 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/4/2/17185052/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-interview-fake-news-bots-cambridge.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “The Virtual Sphere.” New Media, p. 19.

Plantin, Jean-Christophe, et al. “Infrastructure Studies Meet Platform Studies in the Age of Google and Facebook.” New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 293–310. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1461444816661553.

Rider, Karina, and David Murakami Wood. “Condemned to Connection? Network Communitarianism in Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Facebook Manifesto.’” New Media & Society, vol. 21, no. 3, Mar. 2019, pp. 639–54. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1461444818804772.

Schwarz, Ori. “Facebook Rules: Structures of Governance in Digital Capitalism and the Control of Generalized Social Capital.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 36, no. 4, July 2019, pp. 117–41. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/0263276419826249.

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