The mess we attribute to Facebook predates Facebook by just about forever.
Pick a moment of transition across all of human history and the mess is there.
In this case, we don’t even have to go further back than the 2004 Presidential election to see clearly that blaming Facebook, et all, for the chaos of our current crisis of so-called objective reality requires a stubborn lack of perspective on even fairly recent history.
Because a month or so before Election Day that year, World Public Opinion released the results of a survey: The Separate Realties of Bush and Kerry Supporters.
The researchers found that:
- 72% of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had actual WMD or a major program for developing them.
- 75% of Bush supporters believed that Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda
- 31% of Bush supporters recognized that the majority of people in the world opposed the US’s decision to invade Iraq
…while the majority of Kerry supporters believed the complete opposite.
The #altfacts landscape of partisan reality that shaped the 2004 election does not seem to been a Russian psy-op, and Facebook did not yet exist.
Depending on which side of the political spectrum you identify with, you might want to instead point the finger at Fox News, and the all-propaganda-most-of-the-time strategy pioneered by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes…
…or you might blame the left-wing mainstream media for willfully and arrogantly leaving out such a large swath of the conservative perspective on everything.
But either way, you’d have to explain why, at the time of the OJ Simpson trial, the gap in perspectives on his “Not Guilty” verdict split between 42% of whites who thought had gotten away with double homicide and 78% of blacks who believed the jury made the correct call.
And if you’re inclined to go a bit further back and blame the rise of 24/7 news media or the fragmentation of attention heralded by cable TV in general, then you need to grapple with the poll from 1942, 48% of Americans supported the internment of Japanese Americans AND believed they should not be allowed to return to their homes in The USA after the end of hostilities, vs 35% who saw injustice there and 16% who had no opinion on the matter.
And before that on whether or not despite anatomical parallels, human beings of African descent were sufficiently human to be treated as equals instead of property, or whether the infirm and disabled should be sterilized for the good of the race, and before that, and before that, and so on.
The mess of people clinging to information that supports their deeply-held notions of control, stability, and personal righteousness and rejecting information that threatens those beliefs does not originate with Facebook or Google or Fox News or CNN.
Not even close.
That mess lands squarely on the shoulders of human cognition, and (as best as I can tell from here) seems to arise in large part from all the large, deep, unacknowledged, unaddressed, and unhealed wounds in our individual and collective minds.
…All the unprocessed traumas and ancestral fears of being alive in an uncertain world……
…all the entrenched cultural and (possibly) epigenetic memories of being hunted and eaten by wild animals…
…Of being raped, pillaged, enslaved, or exiled by those with power over us…
…of watching our children starve when the rains didn’t come…
..or our homes and families washed away by a flood or explosions from the Earth itself…
….of gathering to watch innocents burn at the stake…
…of throwing stones at adulterous women or being those women getting stones hurled at their heads…
…of hanging the hungry, desperate, and rebellious from their necks until they were dead.
Until we face THAT MESS, own it, accept, embrace it with compassion, and forgive each other and ourselves for our roles and our ancestors’ roles in every single part of it…
…and then let all of it go…
All of those wounds and pains will play themselves back out, over and over again, on repeat, both in our imaginations, on our televisions, sometimes in our own lives and in the lives of people we’ve never met across the whole world.
And that cycle?
It goes back a very, very, very long time. Perhaps far longer than most of us imagine.
And certainly many, many, many years before Mark Zuckerberg made a hot-or-not clone for Harvard students in 2004 and evolved it into Facebook.
Throwing down the gauntlet of freedom (aka What We’re Really Saying When We Blame Facebook For Whatever)
In Western democracies, we often talk about freedom like it’s something everyone must surely want, and even easier to believe it’s something most of us actually have, that now (thanks to FILL IN THE BLANK BAD GUY HERE) is now at grave risk.
But it seems far from clear that any of that is true.
It’s even less clear that anyone who ever loudly proclaims that XYZ bad guy, company, or organization is a threat to everyone else’s freedom understands what freedom requires, and less clear that they have any respect for what freedom really means.
Of course, to make the case that relatively few of us actually have freedom, and that despite what we say, very few of us want it strongly enough to have it, we’ll have to look at what freedom really means.
If the definition I will attempt to articulate and support here holds up even a little (it may not), it will challenge the notion that most of us can credibly claim to be free, or even to be exercising free speech when we open our mouths or put words onto the Internet.
It will suggest that most of the people loudly worried about Facebook’s threats to the stability of democracy are pretty far from free right now…
…and it will even raise the possibility that very few/any of Facebook’s loudest critics value democracy anywhere near as much as they seem to believe they do.
One way to understand freedom is through the lens of the soulful young woman who died in pain once sang to us, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
And though Ms. Joplin seems to have written this with mourning in her heart, there’s a more blissful, Buddhist-esque way to perceive what she was singing.
Because there are at least two ways to have nothing less to lose.
One is feeling, like Janice seems to have felt, that you have lost everything worth having and you’re in so much pain it seems like even death would be a blessing.
The other is to fully realize, embrace, and embody the concept that lasting happiness and bliss are primarily internal states…and that it is less our external circumstances than our internal experience of them that determines the quality of our experience.
More to the point: we already have 100% of everything we need to be content inside us, and that once we dig deep enough to find it, nothing and no one can do anything to take it away from us.
Freedom in one sense might be distilled into: “the effortless power to choose your responses…to become calm and centered or wild and all over the place, and/or everything in between, fully by choice, able to shift between states in a heartbeat…no matter what is happening outside.”
In another, it might be “to have no sense of identity or belief separate from life itself…to be in an effortless state of flow, acting or not acting in exact proportion to the needs of the situation.”
But either way, complete freedom may be meaningfully different from total agency, which might be encompass things like “the power to choose your actions, schedule your own day, pick the company you keep, go wherever you want whenever you want, and so on.”
Accordingly, while losing one’s agency to some kind of institutional control structure is not something I would wise on anyone, it may still be possible to maintain a high degree of internal freedom within those constraints…like being able to maintain a Zen state while incarcerated in prison.
If that definition of freedom holds, it follows our degree of freedom directly correlates to the number and severity of our separate identities, addictions, and unconscious, reactive patterns…
Because when we are fully in the hold of addictions, habits, unprocessed emotions or moving experiences (pleasant or painful alike)…or really just any long-standing cyclical pattern of behavior, it often is one or more of those things doing most of the choosing for us.
To use a concrete example:
We may value “freedom of speech” as “the right to say whatever I want to say in public and private” but anytime our words come from a place of insecurity, judgment, anger, contempt, or violence…
Or even from a belief system that we have attached to our sense of self…
Can we really say it is us, and not our emotions, identities, and tightly-held beliefs doing the talking?
All those subconscious and semi-conscious impulses using our voice boxes to vent themselves without telling us that what they’re doing?
In this moment, it can be easy to operate so completely on autopilot that we don’t even notice that our sovereignty over our own speech, over our own bodies and minds has been usurped…
…not by some evildoer or monster or whatever…but by our own unhealed pains, self-doubts, and fears, traumas, etc.
Freedom requires one to bring complete awareness to one’s deepest motivations and internal states, and negotiate them until we are no longer controlled by them.
When we blame Facebook for sucking away our attention, maybe we’re really saying “I don’t think I’m enough” or “I wish I felt more connected” or “I wish I felt more love in my life.”
When we rail at the harms its monopoly on social media and seat in the digital ad duopoly is doing to our world, maybe what we’re saying “I don’t feel safe in the world” Or “all that’s difficult and painful in my life is someone else’s fault.”
And underneath those stories, maybe what we’re really saying: “I feel lost and alone” and “I am afraid to face the depth of my pain.”
Maybe it is the void inside that terrifies us, not Facebook, but Facebook makes a more convenient and comforting scapegoat.
So that is one thing.
Facebook democratizes advertising
The other thing, the thing that most (though not all) the commentators, critics, and journalists now piling onto the bash-Facebook train do not seem to appreciate is that Facebook has democratized advertising, and with it, mass-scale influence.
Specifically, Facebook Advertising, more than any other medium currently available in the world, lowers the barriers to creating and launching effective, profitable advertising campaigns to a profound degree.
It lowers the cost of reaching a precise audience so much that anyone with a creative spark, the willingness to learn, a relatively small amount of analytical hustle, and even just a few hundred dollars to invest can get a well-crafted message in front of exactly the people best suited for their product or service
…and do so profitably, repeatedly, and at scale.
Compared to Google Adwords, which is more technical and tends to require significant analytical sophistication to use and maintain profitably…
…or Google Display Network…which most unsophisticated advertisers would find utterly overwhelming…
And certainly compared to TV, radio, and print advertising…
Facebook Advertising is approachable, understandable, and easily accessible.
Yes, it’s got a learning curve. But it is not that steep.
With focus, the fundamentals of Facebook Advertising can be learned in two weeks or less, and while figuring out how to find the right audience and navigating the different ways to run campaigns takes practice and trial and error, it is imminently achievable for anyone with even a little bit of grit and hustle.
The internet has a lot of free information on all of the basics, and a lot of the intermediate stuff, too.
Put simply, Facebook advertising lowers the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs of many, many kinds…not just the swing-for-the grand-slam-while-slam-dunking-over-Yao-Ming kind that Silicon Valley worships..
The smaller kind, too. The “be your own boss, live life on your own economic terms, put a diverse array of food on your family’s table” kind.
Thanks to Facebook, if you have grit, hustle, even the beginnings of a plausible business idea, and a few hundred dollars to risk, you have all you need to put one foot in front of the other and get a digitally-supported business off the ground in 2019.
In the market system of the West, for all of its flaws, that is as democratic as it gets.
But like democracy, itself, in which a relatively small, passionate group of clever people can over a generation or three, use the levers of free speech and the arcane boringness of the legislative process to quietly tilt the whole the system towards their own designs, there’s a flip side that can be deeply painful.
The same easy access to mass-scale-yet-granular reach that opens the gates to small and mid-scale entrepreneurship in an unprecedented way also open the gates to everyone else.
And so, when one has the resources, hustle, and cosmic timing of the 2016 Trump Campaign…
…or many centuries worth of experience as the world’s most sophisticated practitioner of psychological warfare and cultural subterfuge (a la Russian Intelligence), Facebook’s tools become something much more profound:
A crowbar into the whole world’s zeitgeist.
In hands that seek much more than money, facing a set of cultural, political, and economic systems that despite what anyone may want to claim have tipped far into dysfunction, that crowbar can and easily does morph into a wrecking ball.
And in this moment of epochal transition, as the old, self-obsessive ways of doing things are showing their hollowness and the deep violence of the logic of misogyny and top-down order reveals itself, and all the garbage and darkness we’ve swept under the carpets begins to rain down on the systems that perpetuate them…suddenly so much is up for grabs…
And those with aims of a seat at the next table are more than happy to leverage what Facebook has created to remake the world as they see fit.
But it is not Facebook that makes this. It is all of us pretending the mess is not all of ours to clean up.
Without our reflexive inclination to blame Facebook for our own lust for distraction, our own unwillingness to turn and face ourselves and all the pain we carry and inflict on ourselves and each other, Facebook’s dopamine generation engine would not have a single leg to stand on.
But when we continue to pretend that it is anyone but ourselves responsible for our unwillingness to embrace with the challenging parts of life, we build Facebook a temple.
A good name for it might be “The Victimhood of the Ego In its Adolescent Phase.”
The correction of such deep imbalances cannot be anything but destabilizing. In a world governed by fear, the gnawing sense of impending catastrophe is hard to avoid.