To understand contemporary phenomena, it may be interesting to refer to the literature. You can compare the hooded pimple turned CEO of Facebook to the idealistic young doctor in Mary Shelley’s novel.
Certainly, Victor Frankenstein wanted to conquer death, while Mark Zuckerberg wanted to rate the most beautiful girls on campus. The two have in common, however, that they have been greatly overwhelmed by the consequences of their creature’s actions. They also took on a rather passive role when she started breaking things and hurting people.
This is the case for the management of Facebook, as for that of all the digital companies which suddenly decided to censor Donald Trump last week. However, the awakening is rather late for these giants who have developed a paid model by selling advertising supported by the content shared by their users, all the more enthusiastic that it does not cost them a penny.
When it’s free, it’s usually you the product, they say.
Corporate America to the rescue
Many applauded when Facebook and Twitter cut Donald Trump’s whistle in the wake of the Washington Capitol invasion. Admittedly, there was something satisfying about seeing the chief toddler having his loud whistle removed after so long.
Imitated by other big digital players, such as Google, Apple and Amazon, who have banned from their hosting applications encouraging hate speech from fans of the ousted president, the initiative is however problematic in several respects.
First, because it only pushed Trump and his supporters to migrate to other platforms, often encrypted and more clandestine. The insurgency will continue to be fomented, but the general public will no longer be able to monitor it.
Then, no one gave these large companies the mandate to decide what can or cannot be said in the public space. If “Corporate America” suddenly woke up, it wasn’t because it discovered a democratic and progressive ideal.
The CEOs of big companies who set themselves up as checks and balances today defend capitalism first and foremost, and political instability is bad for business. We can agree with the intervention and its motivations – I am – but let’s not think that it will always be in our interests.
When an Alexandria Occasio-Cortez runs for the presidency by proposing to break the trusts that have become social networks, we could take the leap. In fact, Facebook and Twitter loved Trump as long as he paid off for them.
Finally, one day we will have to collectively understand that, when the time comes to talk about this disinformation no longer creeping, but climbing, the GAFAMs are like the two blades of a pair of scissors. They help spread fake news, on the one hand, while undermining the traditional press, on the other.
A living democracy
Social platforms use content produced by media companies, because it is popular and credible. The conspirators may think what they want, the mainstream media have never been so followed as under the presidency of Donald Trump, especially since the start of the pandemic.
Twitter, Facebook and Google are therefore very happy to share the content of established press companies whose accountability is based on competition and on searchable ethical and editorial standards. And they are all the more happy that it costs them nothing.
The GAFAMs are laughing to death. Not only do they not have to pay to produce the content they broadcast, they are also exempt from tax and do not have to collect sales taxes in most of the markets in which they operate.
The advisers of the advertising departments of the press companies vampirized by Facebook and Google must take care of it.
The GAFAM tax issue is therefore not a separate issue from the issue of online disinformation that we are currently trying to get rid of under the carpet.
These are two sides of the same coin, the one we would like to display in a healthy public space to keep democracy alive.
It is up to states, in their political and judicial functions, to set legal limits on freedom of expression, if there are any, not to the board of directors of Facebook.
Likewise, governments would not have to ask taxpayers to finance the survival of the press on their own, like many other public services, if they at least forced GAFAMs to pay their due.
When Frankenstein’s creature fled the castle, a mob armed with pitchforks and scythes set out in pursuit. Now that the latter has instead decided to invade the Capitol, it would be nice if we tame the monster and show him how to behave, rather than hope that he ends up doing it on his own.