Dossier 4: The Power of Facebook


Now that we are extremely online due to the Corona crisis, we are living in Mark Zuckerberg’s wet dream. In April 2020, when large parts of the world were in lockdown, Facebook was the most used social media platform worldwide. When European countries began their lockdowns in mid-March, calls made via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger doubled. On Instagram we saw how our friends spent their days at home. And via Facebook’s newsfeed we kept up to date with the latest corona news.

In 2020, not only did the platform’s power increase but so did criticism against it. At the beginning of the pandemic, when reliable information about the virus was literally a matter of life and death, Facebook was struggling with their content moderation and posts were increasingly reviewed by AI. With the platform’s past history with the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US elections via the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the platform is being more closely watched than ever before. Criticism is even coming from within the company itself. When Trump’s inflammatory posts, spreading false information, were not removed, many of Facebook’s own employees conducted a ‘virtual walkout‘. On top of that, Facebook was one of the Big Tech companies to be questioned about antitrust and privacy last summer.

With the platform constantly overrun with hate speech and disinformation, we need to question whether Facebook really wants to fix itself. The platform doesn’t see itself as an ‘arbiter of truth’, yet it constantly changes its guidelines around ‘community standards’ and what is and is not allowed on the platform—a moving target of women breastfeeding, Holocaust deniers, and white supremacists.

Many argue that Facebook is building a nation-state, and Mark Zuckerberg is the king. But what makes Facebook so powerful? It’s not only the way they bring information to us, but also how they extract information from us via their platforms— Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. The sophistication of location-based tracking, coupled with the personal data that the company has about users and their behaviour online, creates an environment where people are convinced that their phones are listening to them and serving up ads based on those conversations. Products like funny face filters, Stories and voice messages via WhatsApp are just hooks that lure us into the extractive economy of ‘surveillance capitalism’, a term introduced by philosopher and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff. In this structure it is our behaviours and our experiences that become the raw material for a new kind of economic model. Spaces reserved for social and personal life have become increasingly commodified through ‘connections’ on social platforms like Facebook and the monitoring and tracking of our online activities allows companies to predict and influence our behaviour.

But how can we extract ourselves out of this extractive economy? Can we become more aware of how these systems operate when they are purposely made invisible to us? Is it still possible to use the social media platforms Facebook is offering us in ways that don’t compromise our right to privacy? And what positive elements do these platforms bring to our lives? In this dossier we’ll start to untangle these questions and get a better grasp on the power of Facebook. Lilian Stolk interviews internet policy consultant Joe McNamee on the economic and political motives that underlie Facebook’s choices for their content moderation. We’ve invited Kate Imbach to do a visual analysis of Mark Zuckerberg’s instagram account to see the man behind the image of the man. Margarita Osipian interviews Joel Galvez to talk about the power of public data and creating distributed event calendars. Take a look on the bright side—Lilian and Margarita report on how Facebook’s platforms can bring ordinary people and celebrities together, provide an outlet to share stories about sexual harassment, and spark new forms of creativity with interactive filmmaking.