Politicians could regulate Facebook -- but they'd have to admit ugly truths about themselves too
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pictured in May 2018 (AFP)

When 37-year-old Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress on October 5, she brought thousands of stolen documents with her. They are the most conclusive evidence yet that the top social media company knows it profits from harming the public.

Like many whistleblowers, Haugen — a member of the civic integrity team — took an exciting job only to be implicated in what she believes to be an ethical catastrophe. Much has been made of her statement on "60 Minutes" that teenage girls who use Facebook are more likely to suffer from depression and self-harm. Endangering children rightly grabs the public's sympathy and concern.

But what about the consequences to democracy? Haugen is the latest expert to directly implicate Facebook in the tsunami of disinformation that was instrumental to Donald Trump's victory in 2016 and, more recently, his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Yet, shortly after November 3, as the political crisis that would culminate in the January 6 insurrection was building, Facebook dissolved the civic integrity team.

Six months later, a third of American voters still believed that Donald Trump won the election. Facebook has been implicated, not just in the spread of global illiberalism, but in gun violence, youth suicide, genocide and a contemporary contagion of conspiracy theories. And, except for listening to Haugen's testimony, Congress has done nothing.

Why?

Although the right fulminates about censorship, and the left about Facebook's monopolistic practices, neither Republicans or Democrats seem content to let the company — which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram — regulate itself. Yet Haugen has revealed little that we, and presumably, Congress, did not know about Facebook already.

Since 2018, media experts like Jaron Lanier and Siva Vaidyanathan have explained that Facebook promotes dark and destructive content because it is "sticky," keeping users on the platform for longer sessions that reap greater profits for the company. In their 2021 book An Ugly Truth, Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, using interviews with anonymous and named sources, recounted Haugen's charges in detail.

To understand why the political class does nothing, one could start with Federal Election Commission filings: Facebook employees donated almost $20 million to political campaigns in the 2020 cycle alone. While over 80 percent of that went to Democrats (Joe Biden was the top draw at over $1.5 million), Republicans got their share too. Facebook's PAC, the company's official political donor arm, consistently donates more money to Republicans than Democrats.

But there is, I suspect, something larger in play than money.

Facebook and other forms of digital marketing that would inevitably be affected by regulating Facebook have transformed politics. It was Republican John McCain who mounted a brief, but robust, challenge to the powerful Bush money machine in 2000 by engaging voters live on a website with rudimentary video technology. In 2004, the almost unknown Howard Dean became a contender for the Democratic nomination by raising hundreds of millions in small donations in a few months, connecting to voters on blogs and organizing supporters in states other candidates didn't visit on MeetUp.com.

And in 2008, Facebook entered national politics through the back door. Co-founder Chris Hughes took a leave from the company to organize digital marketing for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Following his victory, the right took notice: in 2010, the Tea Party movement mobilized almost exclusively on Facebook to fight the Affordable Care Act, endorsing 129 Republican candidates for the House and nine for the Senate. A third of those candidates won, delivering the House of Representatives into the hands of a Republican majority also stripped of many moderate incumbents.

In a short 20 years, it has become possible for "outsiders" who represent the most energetic factions in both parties to succeed, and career politicians in both parties to fundraise as if they were outsiders. Facebook is the linchpin of a digital universe where it is always election season.

What would political campaigns even look like if social media platforms were, for example, uniformly restrained by standards of truth, restrictions on emotional content and algorithms, or the collection and sale of user data? How would the myriad small donations that power all campaigns, but particularly insurgent progressive and right-wing candidates, be collected? What new methods could mobilize grassroots supporters to demand, or refuse, change?

In a world where only 25 percent of twenty-somethings watch the news — but 70 percent of adults use Facebook — how would politics even happen if social media's reach was blunted?

Since Donald Trump was kicked off Facebook and Twitter, conservatives have complained the loudest about Big Tech's power. But the truth is politicians are not just facing questions about regulation, public health and civic disorder when they confront Facebook's unethical behavior. They are facing questions about a political environment that has been transformed by the internet.

And they are facing ugly truths about themselves.