Trump and Zuckerberg: "Let's Make a Deal"
Our Denial is Killing Our Democracy -- and Ourselves
Hello Dear Readers. In our first piece, “Facebook Must Be Stopped,” we detail the implications of the avalanche of negative findings about Facebook in such publications as the book “An Ugly Truth,” by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, and the Wall Street Journal. In the second, “Denial is as American as Apple Pie,” we uncover a key reason we’re finding it nearly impossible to reverse the ugly, connected national trends fueling our race to the bottom.
Facebook Must Be Stopped.
In 2016, when millions of Americans were exposed to a coordinated disinformation campaign from Russian intelligence services, the media shone a spotlight on the tech giant’s shortcomings. Turns out, Facebook knew about the disinfo campaign, did almost nothing to address the crisis, and suppressed the information. Later, Facebook lied about the extent of the damages. After the genocide in Myanmar was partially incited on the platform in 2018, Facebook promised to do better. They didn’t. Right wing-violence in India organized on Facebook again generated apologies, again generated promises, again generated no meaningful changes to how Facebook does business.
Lest we think these problems are ancient history, blockbuster reporting from the Wall Street Journal in September of 2021, featuring documents from a company insider, shows that Facebook continues to ignore the serious harms caused by the platform.
From the WSJ:
“Facebook’s own research lays out in detail how its rules favor elites; its platforms have negative effects on teen mental health; its algorithm fosters discord; and that drug cartels and human traffickers use its services openly. “
The truth is, Facebook’s core business model relies on the spread of hate and lies. That’s because the only metric that matters to Facebook honchos is engagement: how often you log in, and how often you stay on the site. Facebook executives know that the best way to keep folks engaged is by riling them up. Sure, they could slow down the sharing, so that hateful content gets an extra pair of eyes on it before it jumps from 500 shares to 5 million. Or, as they did for a few weeks before the run-up to the 2020 election, Facebook could change the newsfeed algorithm to weed out junk and favor real news from reliable sources. There are any number of ways to make Facebook better that the company ignores in favor of profitability.
On top of these systemic issues, there is another wrinkle: the leadership choices of Facebook executives, notably Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Joel Kaplan, have worsened the existing technical harms of the platform through repeated policy interventions (or non-intervention, in many cases) that have created safe haven for the worst actors in U.S. right wing politics. (Runner-up status in terrible FB leadership goes to Peter Thiel, board member, destroyer of Gawker)
For example, according to Max Chafkin in his book “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power published by New York Magazine” - Mark Zuckerberg struck a deal with Trump, wherein Facebook agreed to never fact-check Trump, so long as Trump left the company alone. Shitty platform, shitty leadership, shitty results.
The compounding failures of Facebook result in global harms of which the company is well aware. Within the United States, the platform’s nuclear-level amplification of right-wing messaging is the most acute of these harms, a threat which must be immediately addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for reversing the advances of extremism and illiberalism.
At roughly 300 million U.S. users, Facebook’s reach is unparalleled, even as new social media entrants like Tik-Tok capture an increasing share of users, especially among young people. Facebook’s failure to curtail the messaging and recruiting of the right-wing means that the worst people in the country have nearly unrestricted access to a historically unparalleled network. Sure, militias could hop on over to Gab or whatever other dark places they congregate, but they’d be talking to themselves. They wouldn’t be able to recruit new people, and they wouldn’t be able to influence the mainstream conversation. There’s a reason Trump crowed so loudly when he was booted from Facebook and Twitter. He knew no one was going to hear him anymore. Look what happened with his blog.
So what exactly can be done?
Facebook, at bare minimum, should enforce their existing rules. The Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of an ‘X-Check’ program which allowed prominent users to subvert. We know from reporting (NYT book) that FB insiders like Joel Kaplan leaned on the leadership to exercise a hands-off approach when it came to right wing superusers, including the worst superuser of all -- Donald J. Trump.
No matter how egregious the abuse, right-wing individuals and organizations are given preferential treatment. Take The Daily Wire - Ben Shapiro’s grievance and racism aggregation website. The Daily Wire gets ten times the level of engagement per article as the New York Times, despite containing no original reporting. Judd Legum at Popular Info dove deeply into the Daily Wire in a 2020 post, exposing the site’s blatant abuse of Facebook’s rules on ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior.’ The Daily Wire didn’t get the boot. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg didn’t want his next dinner with Ben Shapiro to be too awkward.
Facebook executives, time and again, chose not to enforce the rules against right wing actors because they feared the political fallout. The right-wing complained that Big Tech was out to get them, so Facebook bent over backwards to make it seem like conservatives and right wingers had a home on The Social Network.
Especially in Facebook “Groups.” Kyle Rittenhouse almost got the message to grab his gun and head to Kenosha on the site. A group called “The Kenosha Guard” posted a call for the August 2020 response to ongoing protests with the following ask: “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs?”
For a time, Facebook was auto-generating pages for militia groups as well as doing the heavy lifting on bringing in new recruits. Militias ran ads on the platform. Hell, some of them had ‘militia’ in the group name, and Facebook still did nothing.
Months after the Jan. 6 insurrection, hundreds of militia groups were still actively recruiting on Facebook. Facebook could do something about the militias. They just don’t want to.
And then, of course, there’s the News Feed, the never-ending feeder to keep your eyeballs glued to Facebook with whatever it is the algorithm determines will get you all worked up, no matter the boat to your mental health, no matter the impact to political discourse. Facebook for newsworthiness.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Facebook can slow things down. And if there’s ever going to be meaningful improvement, they’ll have to.
The current user base and sheer volume of sharing on Facebook make human oversight of the content nearly impossible. Unless you stop the spread of lies, hate, and misinformation before they are allowed to reach critical mass. Facebook. There’s a big difference between reaching your small circle of family and friends with your bullshit; it’s another story altogether when your content reaches 15 million people. Internal circuit breaker tools. Something of a simple concept -- slow down the velocity of posts.
These common-sense, simple fixes do not completely curtail the awfulness of the platform. Frankly, it may be impossible to fully address the problems of Facebook since Facebook itself IS the problem. However, these easy to implement patches will severely curtail the ability of the right wing to recruit and amplify their messages, as well as attack our elections.
Should we break up Facebook? Yes. Should the company be the target of class action lawsuits? Yes. Should we join together in calling for the ouster of Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Joel Kaplan? Should we call for massive fines and sanctions? All of the above.
On the heels of the Wall Street Journal reporting, the likelihood of increased congressional oversight veers toward certainty. People are pissed, and rightfully so.
Even if Facebook fell off the face of the earth, swallowed up by a Menlo Park sinkhole, our problems (us being progressives who care about things like human rights, a habitable planet, public health) would not disappear. That’s why our Facebook strategy sits inside of an integrated, overall communications/propaganda strategy, as outlined here:
We gotta do something about Facebook. We gotta do something about Fox News. We gotta do something about all of it.
Oh, also, you personally should log off and delete Facebook. Right now. It’s not as hard as you think. Here’s a link: Deleting Facebook
Denial is as American as Apple Pie
Denial of reality is the primary sociological trait shared by all Americans. We have a former President facing zero consequences for corruption, dereliction of duty, fomenting insurrection, multiple violations of oath of office, rape and sexual harassment, fraud, and treason. We have a major corporation – Facebook – causing documented psychological harm to millions of people globally, supporting repressive governments including instances of genocide, allowing hundreds of its male employees to harass women using their access to FB data, colluding with Trump to avoid regulation, and avoiding legitimate, much-needed taxes. We have Governors and state legislatures passing draconian laws and policies that repress and endanger the health of their citizens – all for political advantage. We (collectively) are allowing the police to kill Black People with impunity, we are incarcerating them for profit instead of justice, and we are suppressing their Constitutional rights to maintain white supremacy. Climate change is trending towards the worst-case projections and we’re doing fuck all about it. And instead of being in the streets protesting – we’re at home watching our 401ks to direct us how to think about the key issues of our time, and following “influencers” who couldn’t lead their way out of a paper bag but have perfected an American style of grift in which there is absolutely “no there there.”
Paradoxically, it would appear that the American right and left share the same core sentiment – both “Make America Great Again” and “Make America What is Aspires to Be” are not antithetical and unbridgeable mantras. On the contrary, the problem is that Americans of all political hues share fundamental myths -- such as American Exceptionalism. We accept similar falsehoods – such as “the center will hold.” And most confoundingly, we uncritically accept the antithetical concepts of “declinism” and “triumphalism.” These aspects of denialism collectively obscure the truth and thus the pathway to the type of satisficing, achievable solutions that would preserve that which is good and worth preserving, prevent the authoritarian takeover that would be deleterious even to the majority of Trumpists, and allow us to refocus long-term national objectives so we can bring the American empire to a soft landing. The fact that Republicans are both deliberately ignorant and morally bankrupt, while Democrats tend to be morally upright and overly hopeful bordering on delusional, is a distinction that matters somewhat. But the fact that they overlap in the denial Venn diagram is both largely unacknowledged and determinative.
We are taking a long time to come to grips with multiple hard truths. We have been in relative decline since at least the early 1970s, and possibly the late 1960s, when the Vietnam War, OPEC oil embargo, rise of China, decline in union membership, decisive turn to neoliberalism and successive economic shocks – among multiple other factors – combined to create an inflection point we have been desperately trying to ignore with our “Top Gun” movies, beating up on weaklings (Grenada, Bosnian Serbs, Iraq, Cuba, Venezuela), tech fetishism, overeating and latte sipping. Denial is taking a terrible toll on us in terms of substance abuse, obesity, declining standards of civility, economic inequality, and political instability – and is a major cause of the severity and prevalence of each – as well as accelerating the vicious cycle caused by their combination.
What else are we denying? We are no longer a great nation by any honest or robust definition, we are a democracy in name only, we have a corrupt government beholden to oligarchs and financial interests, we tolerate massive levels and multiple types of injustice, we have a vicious yet totally unacknowledged class system, we kill non-Americans with moral impunity, we conducted a genocide of Native Americans that is the largest and most sustained in global history that has never been officially acknowledged or addressed, and we rob the majority of Americans of their rights to dignity and respect every single day. Here’s a more in-depth capture of this point: Americans are great deniers.....
It should by now be apparent that what progressives, liberals, and democrats have been hoping for and working towards - a shift in socio-political balance of power back in favor of democratic principles, international brotherhood to save the plant from global warming and other man-made scourges, and, here in the U.S., a return to comity, civility, and a reversal of geopolitical and liberal decline – is an unobtainable set of objectives – at least in the near term. The right is the catbird seat strategically speaking, and the left is crippled by its reliance on a Democratic Party so inwardly focused, out of touch and gun-shy that it won’t even fight back when cornered itself, much less fight for the underdog.
Collectively, this denial – again, of which left and right are complicit – forces the majority of American citizens to hold every more tightly to their beliefs, opinions and positions in a socio-psychological phenomenon known as Reinforcement Theory. The answer is not mutual understanding amongst left and right at the current level of beliefs – that should also be quite clear. It’s not that we don’t understand one another – we totally “get” each other. We simply dislike and disagree with each other. The “answer” is to be found through the mutual search for and acceptance of the fundamental truths we have been collectively denying. There must in the end be a collective “aha moment” that, unfortunately, will likely require three generations. Is this a grim prognosis? You bet. Just not as grim as any of the alternatives.
We’re not alone historically with this level of sociological denialism. The Roman Empire’s reliance on “Bread and Circuses” is clear evidence of denial being a major contributing cause of its fall. Here are some more recent examples of once-powerful nations declining relatively rapidly fueled in large part by denial:
France – on top for approximately 165 years, somehow decided democracy was overrated and Napoleon was a good thing – even brought him back for an encore after his earlier play flopped, promptly got their asses kicked by Germany (a smaller, newer country) three times in 70 years.
Germany – five years at the top, learned every wrong lesson from the First World War, should have quit while they were ahead, decided to throw over a couple hundred years of liberal progress and thought leadership and give up likely lucrative and long-term control of Europe by following a madman long past the point it was clear the jig was up.
Japan – five years in control of most of Asia outside of Russia, somehow decided it was worth causing the incineration of two hundred thousand of its own citizens while it wrestled with internal messaging about its already largely ceremonial Emperor.
Great Britain – Longevity of the Empire is disputed, but decidedly on top for at least 100 years, tried to pretend both World Wars and the Indian Independence Movement were historical anomalies vice inflection points. Once had world’s largest empire, now has small island chain with bad weather and continuous internal independence movements trying to make it smaller yet.
Soviet Union – 45 years as the original Evil Empire and bogeyman of democracies whose lies eventually ate it out from the inside. Now a historical footnote and cautionary tale. Oh, also ruined the concept of socialism by appropriating the term for its less than faithful brand of Marxism – thereby strengthening the hold on the rest of the world of neoliberalism and crony capitalism – thereby accelerating the decline of democracy through its failure rather than success. Quite the trick.
Now I’m not a historian, thus I’m probably violating every single academic historical analysis approach with this aspect of my discussion. That said, I am quite adept at pattern analysis, and the pattern I see repeatedly at end of empire is national denial, elites creating and perpetuating myths and deliberating obscuring deeper truths and inequalities to maintain advantage, non-elites trying desperately to keep from admitting that they’ve been chumped, and everyone colluding in a race to the bottom while re-arranging the deck chairs in the Titanic.
Well, what does the path forward look like? The right is not going to lead in this effort – they are hell bent on taking denialism to its theoretical limits. They are content not just to go down with the ship, but to drill holes in the bottom so it sinks faster. There is nothing the left can do in the near term to reverse the deep-seated self-hatred and nihilism of infected individuals.
However, to the degree and at the speed to which liberals, progressives and democrats shed their own denial, we can begin to unwind the vicious cycles noted above and create a virtuous replacement – we still have a shot at this outcome. As we have argued incessantly in these pages, the left needs to fight to the death to preserve democracy – but such does not include continuing to gaslight themselves. The truth can indeed set us free, because it will unleash the largely untapped, uninspired, and unguided power of the American left and center. And it will gradually change the national culture to one in which self-hating, nihilism and authoritarianism have no place.
The search for the truth as basis for objectives and policy must replace the rush to appear to be doing something that characterizes the Democratic Party and Biden Administration. The party and President must be pushed vigorously in this direction, with the nation refusing to take no for an answer.
What has to change to make this work while not making things worse? Long-term strategy supported by resources. Disciplined focus on justice. Exceptional communications planning. Participative Democracy and real power sharing. Decisive vice timid application of power to buy us time for the cultural transition.
How do we get started? Read our last issue for a detailed Course of Action.
Reject both ‘declinism’ and ‘triumphalism’ – they are both attractive, socially accepted, and seductive – wholly inaccurate and irrelevant -- just two more isms that obscure reality and prevent effective action.