This extremely boring controversy over Facebook’s topic sorter algorithm or whatever it is is extremely boring, but it’s at least good for one thing: it’s clarifying how people implicitly view Facebook, and, correspondingly, what kind of society they think they live in.
Now, the whole thing has obviously been ginned up by the Right-Wing Scandal Generator, which at this point seems to have self-actualized and gone Skynet. It’s essentially conspiracy theorist Mad Libs: take any liberal-ish group or any government agency except the military, slap on a charge about converting kittens to Satanism or saying something mean about white people, and see if it has legs. Which it usually does, since these people are operating under a severe case of epistemic closure.
Anyway, for the rest of us, the newsworthy bit was that Facebook actually has people deciding which stories are popular instead of blind algorithms. Of course, in practice, there’s no difference. Algorithms are written by people, and they carry whatever implicit or explicit biases went into their creation. The point, though, is that people were assuming Facebook didn’t have its fingers in the pie, and they were upset to find out that it did. This has happened before. When Facebook ran its emotional manipulation experiment, for example, there wasn’t any practical consequence anyone could point to, but people didn’t like the idea of Facebook picking and choosing what they saw instead of letting it happen “naturally.”
What makes this all not make sense is the fact that Facebook is a corporation. Corporations obviously have their own interests and biases. In fact, we expect them to; we understand corporations as actors, if not persons. This is why we expect them to do things like withdraw advertising from bigoted programs or support charities, and why we get mad when they outsource jobs or use stereotypes to sell products. It’s also why we talk about pointless things like corporate “greed” or “corruption” instead of focusing on the actual structure that causes them to act the way they do. So if people thought of Facebook in this way, there wouldn’t be anything untoward about its behavior. Of course Facebook, staffed largely by young liberals (or at least tech libertarians), is not going to be interested in promoting Racist Grandpa’s email forwards. Accusing Facebook of censoring conservative stories makes exactly as much sense as accusing Fox News of censoring liberal stories. And remember, it’s the small-government fetishists who are getting mad about this, which, yeah, it’s opportunism, but it’s not even a sensible claim unless you assume that Facebook has a general public responsibility. After all, these same people are currently engaged in a deathly struggle to save private corporations from such scourges as having to sign contraception coverage waiver forms and having to bake cakes for gay people.
So what this means is that people don’t think of Facebook as a corporation. And this makes total sense, because Facebook doesn’t do any of the things that corporations are supposed to be for. It doesn’t create a product that people buy, or create content supported by advertising. It’s not even something like Google’s search engine where it feels like a utility but is still a tool with an actual function. Facebook is a bulletin board. It allows people to do things with it rather than doing anything itself. Sure, it’s a piece of software that requires development and maintenance, but in terms of function, Facebook is essentially a park. It’s a public space where people come to interact with each other. It’s a commons. The only reason demands for neutrality in its operation are comprehensible is that everyone implicitly understands that it doesn’t make sense for anyone to be profiting off of it.
The funny thing about capitalism as a world-defining ideology is that nobody actually believes in it. We expect corporations to be good people rather than to follow the incentives that define their existence in the first place. And we expect the commons to be respected and maintained rather than privatized and pillaged. Despite the much-vaunted “cynicism” of the American public, people actually go around assuming they’re living in a much better society than they actually are – one that basically works for people, and whose problems are the result of bad actors rather than the necessary consequences of the systems that constitute it. A world of bad actors is quite a lot better than a world of bad systems, because a world of bad actors can be fixed by getting rid of the bad actors. But a world of bad systems will go wrong no matter how the people in it act, and we haven’t yet figured out how to reliably change systems for the better. One assumes there’s a way, but one also doesn’t get one’s hopes up.
In the meantime, if you really want a neutral platform, there’s only one reasonable course of action. Nationalize Facebook.