Facebook’s frightening descent into immortality


There is now little doubt that fake news and targeted ads on Facebook, paid for by some people in Russia, influenced in some measure, the course of the 2016 US elections and their unexpected denouement. The mechanics of how it was done and how decisive the Russian campaign was, are being debated at the highest levels in the US. But that Facebook, a listed US company, the shining star of American capitalism, was the primary messenger in this disinformation drive is in no doubt.

For a sense of how grave that is, consider if enough evidence emerges to show that the results of the 2014 general election in India were influenced by forces in Pakistan, affiliated to the government there.

And then evidence emerges that this paper was the platform used by those forces to subvert the democratic process in India. Would Mint escape serious censure? Would it even survive such a scenario?

The conclusion should be obvious. Any company that willingly or unwillingly allows itself to be manipulated by anti-national forces to subvert a free nation’s systems and processes, should have to pay a price.

Facebook, though, isn’t any company.

In the ordinary course, following such revelations, it should have seen a serious drop in its popularity, impacting its performance.

But Facebook, whose way up has been among the most spectacular ascents in corporate history, has shown little signs of any fallout from these charges.

Facebook’s operating margin hovers around the 50% mark. It is sitting on billions of dollars in cash and no debt either. Shrugging off charges of allowing itself to be manipulated by Russian agents and the impact of the changes in its newsfeed including showing fewer videos, the company beat expectations again in its fourth quarter 2017 earnings.

Yes, in recent months there have been blips in its progress. A study by research firm eMarketer says that Facebook lost 2.8 million users under the age of 25 last year, with its worst fall coming in the 12-17 age group where it lost some 1.4 million users.

What Facebook is losing, Snapchat is gaining. Even as Facebook struggled with its targets, Snap posted its best quarterly earnings since going public in 2017, leading to a 50% spike in its stock price in a single day.

But when you have 1.4 billion daily users, these numbers from a johnny-come-lately aren’t a big worry. In any case Facebook’s 169.5 million US user base (as compared to Snapchat’s 86.5 million) is bolstered by the 104 million from its 2012 acquisition Instagram.

Let’s face it, Facebook is bigger than anything we have seen so far. In reach, it is bigger than any government and that’s without large swathes of the population in countries like India who are yet to be digitally empowered. When that happens, and we know how hard Mark Zuckerberg is trying to bring them into his fold, its clout will be frightening. What’s more, it is a strange beast seemingly out of the control of its creators.

As a meta platform, Facebook has worked hard to eliminate the lines between itself and its consumers, which makes affixing responsibility for its actions an impossible task. Rarely in history has a company been so much a part of society and so capable of disrupting it. It is impossible to visualize what Facebook will look like in 10 years or even five years from now and that unpredictability comes not from its own morphing but from the fluid nature of our society.

In his prescient 2006 essay Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, Silicon Valley philosopher and visionary Jaron Lanier warns against the “alarming rise of the infallible collective” and cautions that “the collective can be stupid, too. Witness tulip crazes and stock bubbles. Hysteria over fictitious satanic cult child abductions. Y2K mania”.

It is exactly this human flaw that stands exposed on a platform like Facebook and it becomes even more lethal when the collective is atomized and individually targeted, as happened in the build-up to the US elections when Russia-backed content on Facebook reached as many as 126 million Americans.

Facebook is no longer just a company or an institution or any other corporate body. In the language of the new digerati, it is a “thing”, nay “the thing”.

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.livemint