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Facebook Needs Critical Theory

In February 2017, Facebook changed its mission statement from “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica may have harvested data from 87 million Facebook users seems to fall perfectly inline with this mission.

Cambridge Analytica, and the Russian Government’s interference in the U.S. election, present two cases of many where third party actors have utilized Facebook’s network to bring the world together under their ideologies. Facebook has shown that centralized networks are the perfect way to segment groups into ideological and demographic groups – exactly those that marketers desire. Critical theory should serve as a crucial way that social media companies consider how such actions might impact their users.   

In response to rising Facebook distrust, a small cohort of Facebook users have decided to #DeleteFacebook. However, it seems Facebook’s addictive design – with validation loops always bringing users back to the platform – have held too tight of a hold on many users. Those unwilling to disengage entirely from the site have moved call for a “right to be forgotten.” Essentially, Facebook loyalists have begun to consider how Facebook, and the entire internet infrastructure altogether, might allow one to regain control over their own online representation.

The right to privacy on the social network, however, is antithetical to the entire design of the infrastructure. Facebook’s utopian ideal is that everyone submits their entire self to the network allowing for a “more open and connected” world. Many users have been willing to provide the company immense personal information in return for “cost free” access to Facebook’s platform. In turn, Facebook is potentially the most elegant surveillance machine ever created.

Facebook’s business model is driven by a never ending quest for more detailed data on every one of its users, so that it can charge its advertisers higher sums for more refined ad targeting. Such data collection has extended beyond a user’s actions to the Facebook site. Facebook has been shown to purchase data from data brokers in an attempt to expand its data points on users. Even if someone has never made a Facebook account, it is possible that Facebook has a “shadow” account of the individual, in which Facebook creates gathers data on individuals who may have never even officially signed up for Facebook. Therefore, there really is no way to truly delete and exclude oneself from Facebook’s gaze.

Regulatory mechanisms and potential Facebook alternatives will take time to develop. In the meantime, consideration of surveillance art can be an elucidating start for demonstrating the power of critical theory in designing a better social media platform. In particular, American artist Zach Blas has a series Contra-Internet, which aims to “[confront] the Internet as an instrument for control, state oppression, and accelerated capitalism.” In the series, his work utilizes the theoretical framework of queerness presented by José Muñoz in Cruising Utopia as a means to envision a future and potential outsides to the internet. Blas’s work crucially illustrates how critical theory might be deployed to make the internet a more ethical and non-hegemonic space.

One of Blas’s most powerful works resonates strongly with Facebook’s blasé stance on data collection. In a series called Facial Weaponization Suite, Blas made masks that “function as both a practical evasion of biometric facial recognition and also a more general refusal of political visibility.” Blas aggregated biometric facial data onto a single mask that resists facial recognition software. One specific mask, Fag Face Mask, attempts to resist a study claiming it is possible to utilize facial recognition software to determine a user’s sexual orientation. Such work is particularly powerful considering Facebook has recently been accused of storing biometric data of users “face template” without their consent. Wouldn’t it be to Facebook’s advantage to deploy facial recognition software to determine if its users are queer?

Facebook attempts to frame itself as an idealistic network capable of connecting the world seamless and equitably together. Nonetheless, as long as Facebook remains free, the company will continue to be motivated to expand, segment, and influence its user base for the purposes of marketing. Nothing stops Facebook from collecting information on race, sexuality, religion, gender, and politics of its user and allowing governments and corporations to propagate such markers of “difference.” Facebook’s users are essentially the product it sells to marketers – “if the product is free, then you are the product.” The more information that Facebook curates on each user, the more it can charge advertisers to target their advertisements. Similarly, the more ideological difference it can spark within its users, the more it profits.

Blas’s work elucidates that the current market structure within the internet encourages companies, such as Facebook, to reduce individuals to easily tracked, closely monitored, and inherently manipulative identity markers. With such a totalizing grasp over the internet, Facebook and its subsidiaries are able to delineate and influence subgroups exactly as marketing executives and obscure algorithms see fit. While initially such an aim seems harmless, recent events regarding Facebook’s failure to resist decisive actors demonstrates the company is not as responsible as it claims.

Facebook demonstrated the immense amount of social connection and information that can be exchanged through the creation of a critical mass within the internet infrastructure. One must not forget that just five years ago Facebook was heralded for connecting dissidents in support of the Arab Spring. Regardless, Facebook has also shown that the internet’s early idealistic aims quickly fall apart when an unregulated, self-interested actor gains too much power within a network that rewards clearly defined voices over others solely based on amount of engagement a post elicits.

While regulation and rise of other social networks will likely be necessary to “fix” Facebook, the rise of socially conscious and more transparent corporations within the internet’s dominance will be an important first step. Blas is just one of many artists (including Jill Magid, Adam Harvey, and Lauren McCarthy) utilizing the platform of art to critique and imagine new forms of the internet. Surveillance art utilizing theoretical critique can serve as a crucial platform for stepping outside of overwhelming state of the contemporary internet to envision new ways forward. Critical theory, and art working with theory, should serve as an important guide for companies and regulators as they work towards a more equitable internet.

Photo: Social Network Analysis Visualization

About the Author

Tristan Harris '20 is the Associate Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Tristan can be reached at tristan_harris@brown.edu

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