Facebook: The Legitimacy of a Nation State

The Oversight Board: An abstract name for a group charged with making stuff right.

The analogy has been drawn before – that Facebook is like a country. As far back as 2010, The Economist suggested that Facebook was beginning to look like a nation state, comparing a meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the new Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron as ‘more like diplomacy’. In 2014 the Financial Times quoted Zuckerberg as saying to a new hire ‘[t]he best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company.’ In 2018, Vox declared Facebook a Monarchy. But its most recent challenges and changes – specifically the establishment of a new ‘oversight’ board – have been towards addressing a fundamentally political challenge: establishing Facebook’s legitimacy.

As we’ve discussed many times before here on SL, legitimacy is a nebulous thing. It is dynamic, changing; and it is both internally won and externally supported. The members of Facebook itself need to persist their engagement (internal), and global systems – financial, political, technological – need to persist their recognition of Facebook as a legitimate actor (external). If people begin to think that they are being spied upon and taken advantage of, that could weaken the legitimacy of Facebook. Bear in mind this is not a binary position; engagement waxes and wanes, and drives Facebook’s ultimate metric: revenue. Therefore while ‘users’ or ‘engaged users’ is important, their level of engagement really matters, and weakening trust in Facebook as a beneficial (legitimate) system can diminish engagement.

Similarly, Facebook participates in external ecosystems that allow it to operate and prosper. From a financial perspective, its capacity to move money around the world and ‘land’ that money in the most beneficial tax jurisdictions (like Ireland) based on virtual operations allows it to generate far more cash than would otherwise be the case. The same jurisdictional arbitrage allows it to select the regulatory infrastructure to which it will subject itself. The network infrastructure to which it has access, particularly the last mile through local broadband providers (wireline and wireless) is important to guarantee an optimal user experience. Early versions of Facebook in growth markets with limited infrastructure used signalling networks and text based interfaces, supported by direct engagement with carrier network technologies.

The device ecosystem (pre-installed Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram apps) and the identity infrastructure (think of a non-Facebook website where you ‘sign in with your Facebook ID’) are critical to its persistence. Finally the ad tech ecosystem, technical and commercial, are fundamental to the Facebook model. Each of these elements – financial, political, technological – are essential in legitimising Facebook and maintaining it as a viable and powerful force in the world.

The most recent development, the new Facebook Oversight Board, has been carefully constructed to address the problem of ‘Fake News’, and attempting to place the judgement of what is valid speech at arms length from Facebook. In short, it is charged with figuring out what to allow and what to take down. With its own website, and independent black and white branding and high concept artwork, it is corporate, serious, sombre and thought out in great detail. Its name is ‘The Oversight Board’, with no reference to Facebook, an abstract title that calls to mind Philip K Dick’s ‘Adjustment Bureau’. These are weighty things that need to be considered. Its members are global and highly diverse, and its constitutional narrative appears well-meaning and carefully designed.

It has been met with heavy criticism, not least from ‘The Real Facebook Oversight Board’, who, as the name suggests, are not fans of Facebook. The leading criticism of course is that the board remains effectively controlled by Facebook. While ‘the board and its administration are funded by an independent trust and supported by an independent company that is separate from the Facebook company’, the trust itself is funded by Facebook, and so it would go away should Facebook decide to defund it. That said, as an independent trust, it’s possible that other internet players such as Google and Apple might decide to support the Trust, in which case its mission could be enhanced.

Facebook has many of the characteristics of a Nation State. It has a flag (a logo), communities, minorities (lots of them), language (is emoji a language?), treasury (a significant one!), a bureaucracy (also significant) and a whole lot of corporate-constitutional lawyers. It has a public relations machine that resembles a diplomatic corps, and while it may not have a conventional army, it has a cybersecurity capacity that would make the NSA blush. Its strategy, then, could be compared to that of a nation state. Its offensive and defensive postures include zero sum thinking in terms of its direct competitors, but also collaborative and alliance type strategies in specific theatres. Growth can be secured peacefully, but growth must be secured; for regular nation states, preserving the status quo is invariably a good option, but for public corporations like Facebook that would be fatal.

Facebook needs to continue to drive engagement, because that’s the directly monetizable element of its business. Therein lies both its hard and soft power. No politician, regulator or banker is unaware that its capacity for general population influence and control when negotiating tax rules, data privacy standards or financing arrangements. Engagement will continue to grow not just where there’s trust – but where there’s reward through validated and validating social mimesis. This means that when Facebook members engage with the network, they see themselves in it, they see themselves validated in it, and their identities reinforced. This in turn means that if their identities are in some way destructive, or wrong – such as when they are associated with a nefarious cult, or supporting a fraudster, or straight-up involved in crime – that Facebook will need to wilfully negatively impact upon their engagement in order to correct that position. No one likes to be told that their baby is ugly.

The question then for Facebook, and for the Oversight Board, is when to ‘correct a position’. More broadly, the question for Facebook is to establish what the position should be. The challenge is not to establish what is true, but what is right. What is true is something for the philosophers to wrestle with; what is right is that which society deems acceptable. There is one more step to this, which lands us in the position of neo-colonialism, or neo-imperialism. It’s not only what society thinks is acceptable, but what Facebook shareholders think is acceptable. For example, anti-LGBTQ messaging is largely seen as acceptable in Russia and many of the former soviet states. The Oversight Board may take down explicitly anti-LGBTQ posts, while the society within which those posts are available doesn’t agree. On the other side of this is the political problem presented by Donald Trump, which is in essence a problem of extreme polarisation (arguably a self-perpetuating problem, like a glitch in an otherwise perfect machine). It’s not that one position is right and the other is wrong – it’s that neither position can tolerate the other, seeing it as an existential threat: the dichotomy itself is wrong.

The Government of the Republic of Facebook in truth now takes on the challenge not of determining what is allowed and what is not, but of reducing division. That, in fact, is the task it faces. By facilitating a commons where people with differing opinions do not differ to the point of intolerance for opposing views, these problems will shrink. Moving towards that position introduces a further problem: the less contention, the less emotional investment; and the less emotional investment – you guessed it – the less the level of engagement. Who’d be Mark Zuckerberg?!

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