Olivia Turano: Facebook’s influence

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 6:57pm

A pop-up in my Facebook browser prompted me “How much do you think Facebook cares about its users?” I thought about it for a bit, and decided that “neither agree nor disagree” most adequately summarized my feelings. 

So when Facebook thanked me for my feedback, promising to “use it to improve Facebook,” and asking me to share any additional thoughts, I decided to do my civic duty and participate in the democratic process.

I said: I think Facebook is becoming a monopoly and needs to be broken up. It's been done in the past with every generation’s new monopoly: Ours is just online giants like Facebook and Amazon. Don't take it personally, Mark Zuckerberg, you just own way too much of our information for any one person to have.

We’ve been hearing about Facebook consistently in the news since its inception, but increasingly so since January 2018, when the news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. This raised red flags about how much of our information Facebook really has, how that information was misappropriated and the influence platforms like Facebook could have had on the 2016 election. This incident was followed by Mark Zuckerberg’s two appearances on Capitol Hill last April when he testified in front of Senate and House committees on Facebook’s business practices, ethics and protection of user data. More Facebook scandals have continued to appear in the news, remaining at the forefront of the emerging dialogue on the influence and power of Facebook and other companies like it.

This is all part of a bigger picture, beyond just Facebook and the scandals that characterized 2018. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, media and technology giants have continued to grow with almost unchecked power. At 2018’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, George Soros described Facebook and Google as a “menace” to society, intentionally engineering their services to be addictive.

“They claim they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near-monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access,” Soros said.

In May 2019, we heard from Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, in a New York Times op-ed. Hughes described the extent of Mark Zuckerberg’s power and control over Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram. Zuckerberg has an astounding 60 percent of Facebook’s voting shares. He doesn’t just run Facebook — he completely controls it. 

Facebook is worth half a trillion dollars and by Hughes’s estimate, over 80 percent of the world’s social networking revenue. He argued that Facebook has reached monopoly status, “eclipsing all of its rivals and erasing competition from the social networking category” and has called for the company’s leadership to be broken up.

Despite Facebook’s scandals, it continues to thrive. “Even during the annus horribilis of 2018,” Hughes wrote, “Facebook’s earnings per share increased by an astounding 40 percent compared with the year before.” Hughes offered two explanations for Facebook’s continued prosperity; first, less people are going off Facebook than we think, with most deletions being temporary due to the lack of a compelling alternative; second, those who do choose to leave Facebook often turn to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Sleeker and simpler, Instagram has somehow managed to remain separate from Facebook’s scandals.

I was surprised to learn that Facebook is still prospering. Among college students, on the precarious edge of millennial and Generation Z, it feels like Facebook use is dwindling. Only four years ago, Facebook was integral to the high school social scene and culture. For over a decade, people have used Facebook to unite over shared experiences online. Today, I notice my friends posting on Facebook far less, and many high schoolers don’t have Facebook accounts. 

I don’t think our constantly updating news feeds have gradually dwindled because of fear about information security, or even because we know that Facebook influenced the 2016 election. I think it’s because, quite simply, it’s going out of fashion. Facebook rendered MySpace obsolete by 2010, and as 2020 approaches, Facebook is being crowded out by apps that capture our young, impatient minds’ attention more. And yet, we are all still on Facebook. Why?

I think Facebook comes in handy for the small things that don’t add anything extremely valuable to our lives anymore, but make it worth not deactivating — it’s not much more than updating photo albums for your friends and family, sharing articles and providing commentary on current events, but we’ve been doing so for so long that it makes more sense to continue than to stop. But whether or not we’re actively using Facebook, our information remains in the company’s hands nonetheless. Even if we delete our Facebook accounts, we’ll still be on Instagram. Echoing what seems to be a common sentiment of many millennials and Gen Z-ers alike, Mashable published an article in 2018 entitled, “I will delete Facebook, but you can pry Instagram from my cold, dead hands.” In fact, I would argue many of us aren’t even ready to delete Facebook — because if we were, wouldn’t we have already done so? 

I’m not suggesting that we all will, or even should, get off social media. Maybe it’s our biggest enemy, but it’s sometimes our most important friend, essential to our social lives today. Technology is irreversibly ingrained in our existence now, and denouncing it altogether isn’t feasible or productive. We could all theoretically delete our Facebook accounts, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once we delete Facebook, what about Instagram? What about Google, Amazon and Apple? What about the streaming services, email lists, financial institutions and thousands of other providers to which we’ve inevitably provided information?

The turn of the twentieth century was characterized by monopolies. Now almost 130 years after the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, many monopolies have been broken up, from Standard Oil in 1911 to AT&T in 1982. The technology that revolutionized the world a hundred years ago needed eventually to be regulated, controlled and divided, and the arguably monopolistic power of all tech giants deserves, at the very least, a thorough examination. 

I’m not demanding that we all delete our Facebooks or Instagrams or accusing Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg of ruining our lives by any means. But the incredible magnitude of social media and unbelievable abilities of emerging technology grant great power to those who operate it and alter the lives of those who use it. It’s time for us, as users, to be responsible about how we use technology. We should stop and think about the influence of the technology giants that permeate our lives. We should learn about where our information is going when we share it. We should stop and think about why and how we use these platforms. And we should demand accountability from our leaders, both in the government and at the companies that control so much of the information we have already willingly provided, and the information we will undeniably later provide. 

Olivia Turano can be reached at turanoo@umich.edu.