Facebook, the Media and Democracy: Big Tech, Small State?, by Leighton Andrews

Ivor Gaber is left wanting more in this account of how Facebook became a linchpin of today’s ‘surveillance capitalism’

十月 24, 2019
Facebook app on mobile phone
Source: iStock

This book provides “everything you wanted to know about Facebook but were afraid to ask” in just 124 pages. If, however, you are looking for an in-depth discussion of “Facebook, media and democracy”, you might need to look elsewhere, for this is the Facebook story – plain, unvarnished and somewhat frightening.

The first half offers a description of the history and current plans and practices of the net giant. Initially, one could be forgiven for thinking that the author has adopted, if not a benign approach to the subject, then at least one of studied neutrality. But the second half builds up to an extremely disturbing critique of Facebook, a powerful indictment of how the company (which includes Instagram and WhatsApp) has used and abused its phenomenal reach and influence. Facebook, the author tells us, cannot be trusted to use this power for anything other than enhancing its already bloated bottom line, estimated to be approaching an annual $70 billion (£57 billion).

Using a wide range of sources, Leighton Andrews assembles a litany of facts and figures to demonstrate how Facebook has accumulated wealth, power and global networks to turn itself into the linchpin of what he calls “surveillance capitalism”. The behemoth’s latest plans to move into cryptocurrency make the phrase “world domination” worryingly apposite.

On a human level, I was particularly struck by the account of the pernicious role Facebook played in the attempted genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. At a time when there were millions of Facebook users in that country, the company did not have a single Burmese speaker on its staff, so it is hardly surprising that posts containing vicious hate speech and incitements to murder were allowed to run unchecked across its pages, as a report commissioned by Facebook later discovered.

The author, a former Welsh government minister now wearing an academic hat, misses a trick by not pointing out how Facebook makes scholarly research all but impossible. Unlike Twitter, the overwhelming majority of Facebook activity takes place away from the public gaze. But Facebook refuses to allow legitimate researchers the access that would enable them to throw more light on the company’s activities and influence. (That didn’t appear to inhibit Cambridge Analytica in mining millions of bits of Facebook data, although the company claims it was without its consent.)

This short book, part of Routledge’s Focus series, feels even shorter because of the extensive endnotes and bibliography, although on the plus side these provide an invaluable source of references, quotes and facts about Facebook (even if an index comprising only names is disappointing).

Among the quotes used, the most chilling one, from a former senior executive, Andrew Bosworth, sums up the initially vacuous and then (inadvertently or otherwise) malicious aspect of the Facebook mission: “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools…We connect people. Period.” It is hardly surprising to learn that Bosworth’s nickname was “The Ugly” – perhaps not a bad epitaph for Facebook either.

Ivor Gaber is professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex and a former broadcaster with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News.

Facebook, the Media and Democracy: Big Tech, Small State?
By Leighton Andrews
Routledge Focus, 136pp, £45.00
ISBN 9781138608979
Published 10 September 2019


Print headline: The good, the bad and the ugly

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