Is Facebook a proto-state?

November 20, 2015

As the debate about Facebook’s use of Safety Check in Paris, but not in Beirut, saturated social media this past weekend, one could not help but notice that in the past, this kind of service– connecting victims of a terrorist attack with loved ones–might have been administered by an element of the state, specifically by those working in public health or local government.

Both the US State Department and authorities in Paris issued numbers for citizens to call for assistance. Paris actually had three: One that rang at the Paris Prefecture of Police, and two separate numbers for relatives of victims abroad and within France. But these hotlines did not come close to the speed and efficiency of Facebook’s Safety Check.

It wasn’t the first time that Facebook has assumed a kind of official authority. Earlier this year, the social network launched Amber Alerts, a collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to send targeted messages to the newsfeeds of users in areas where a child has gone missing. “Facebook … in essence in this situation, is the world’s largest neighborhood watch,” Emily Vacher, Facebook’s Security, Trust and Safety manager told ABC News. The use of Safety Check in Paris was only the latest example of Facebook’s ascendance, and a sign that, as the social network continues to take on new roles and responsibilities, it is becoming something of a sovereign state.

Over the past few weeks, while helping to organize a conference at Columbia Journalism School about the relationship between journalism and Silicon Valley, I kept wondering about Facebook’s intentions. Is the social network trying to usurp power from traditional publishers? Does it have a longterm strategy to take over the internet, as critics of have suggested? Or have platforms become publishers in part because they are simply better than news organizations at certain tasks: Disseminating journalism, presenting information clearly and attractively online, and having global reach?

The conference, hosted by Columbia’s Tow Center, ultimately seemed less about Silicon Valley and more about the rise of Facebook.  Journalists continue to debate the responsibilities that platforms should have as they become publishers of content. And yet, as its role in the Paris crisis shows, Facebook is already much more than a publisher. Will the argument that Facebook can do it better soon apply to public health, security, counterterrorism, and who knows what else? 

At the Tow conference, Michael Reckhow, a softspoken 2006 Harvard graduate who is product manager of Facebook’s Instant Articles, cited Facebook’s broad reach and its ability to mediate the process of entering new markets–particularly in India–as incentives for publishers to work with his team. Publishers are customers, he said, and Facebook is developing products for them to use.

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More than once, he deflected tough questions about how Facebook is vetting content and affecting revenue for publishers with personal stories that sought to convey his love for journalism. For instance, when asked about the potential consequences of Instant Articles for digital news subscriptions, he explained that he is a New York Times subscriber, but failed to address larger questions about how the Facebook service could affect subscriptions as a media business model.

Throughout the conference, Reckhow, dressed in blue jeans and a khaki button down shirt that emphasized his role as an ambassador from the world of youthful startups, was surrounded by a crowd of journalists. Courting the press without revealing much about the company’s editorial standards is one example of Facebook’s careful PR strategy. The statement released over the weekend about the deployment of Safety Check was another.

Some editors and producers at the conference seemed genuinely enthralled with Facebook. “I think it’s mutual admiration,” said Raney Aronson, executive producer of Frontline, explaining that many of the people she had met at the company were former journalists. (In collaboration with Frontline, Facebook debuted a 360-degree video streaming capability during the conference.)

On the one hand, Facebook seems to be doing all the right things–enabling public media, working collaboratively with publishers, hiring former journalists to help with editorial decisions. But what happens to journalism–particularly the work of independent journalists– when Facebook eclipses the open Web? 

Will the core ethic of democracy sustain the social network, or will its appeal to majorities be the very thing that threatens journalism? What happens to minority voices in this situation? 

“Every year or so, I end up in the midst of many public and private rants about Facebook (and even Instagram) banning of perfectly legal Kurdish content — the mayor of Diyarbakir couldn’t keep a Facebook page for a while (city of millions),” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at UNC-Chapel Hill and New York Times columnist wrote in a post on Medium. “For the most part, Facebook is doing better now on this issue, but it took a lot of ranting from a lot of people.” 

Will Facebook deploy the safety check in Yemen and Pakistan? What about after US drone strikes? What happens when journalism critical of American military operations is deemed extremist or violent and removed from people’s newsfeeds? Will Facebook serve all global citizens equally? And more importantly, who’s making these decisions?

Last week, Facebook released its Global Governance Requests Report, which showed that it had received requests for its data or pleas to restrict content from 92 countries between January and June 2015. The United States led the pack in data requests, with 17,577. Facebook also restricted 15,155 pieces of content in India and 4,496 pieces in Turkey at the request of those governments.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Facebook is a operating at the level of a state, at least not yet. But that may not be far off. 

“This is a great time to be talking to them because the [platforms] are still young,” Tufekci said at the conference. “Facebook is like the Supreme Court–you can always appeal. In 20 years, I don’t think we will have any influence.”

Smitha Khorana is a Tow Center post-doctoral fellow at Columbia Journalism School.