Orysia Hrudka, of the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, discusses her just published article ‘Pretending to favour the public’: how Facebook’s declared democratising ideals are reversed by its practices‘ for AI and Society Journal
Facebook seems to offer an ideal democratic space. It is open, accessible, inclusive, and participatory; it encourages social networks to develop, enhances communication between people, and informs us all about a broad range of topics. Facebook does all it can to seem democratic. Its famous inclusiveness is the gateway to this illusion: to register on Facebook, there are no restrictions based on gender, age, social status, etc, and “Facebook registration is free and will always be so”. But this radical inclusiveness involves the involuntary consent of users to see advertising in every tenth post. And to appear in someone else’s newsfeed a user has to first meet challenging Facebook rules of posting success. As American political theorist Jody Dean puts it, Facebook includes so much that it actually excludes. The ability for any thought to be heard makes it impossible for any particular thought to be heard. Everything can be scrolled past and overlooked, and a user’s apparent disinterest is remembered by an algorithm that means in time, they won’t know what they don’t know.
Mark Zuckerberg claims that the goal of Facebook is to make people spend less time on the social network, but its algorithms are designed to keep users on Facebook longer by selecting the posts and profiles we like best. So the apparent multiplicity of collective content creation on Facebook does not result in different points of view, but leads to single-sided “filter bubbles”, the term coined by Internet activist Eli Pariser. The personal information field associates user preferences to create the misleading impression that most people really think the same way. What had been a commonly-shared media space is replaced by the narrowly-chosen personal newsfeed that appears to be a shared (democratic) space when it is not. In 2017 most US adults (62 per cent) got all their news from social media (71 per cent of which was from Facebook). Facebook gives the impression that ‘news’ still occurs in a commonly-shared media space: but this is an illusion.
Facebook seems to offer democratic horizontal ties between users, avoiding status, giving anyone and everyone, the “ordinary person”, the opportunity for influence – a core idea of democracy. But in practice, the most popular pages – which therefore get most sent to other users – are led by celebrity pop stars and well-known brands. Bloggers made famous by Facebook itself, where Facebook creates its own status, are characterised by an inseparability of personal and professional (or public) life, a merger of the private and public spheres: Facebook celebrity encourages a focus on the person and personality, rather than the issue, or its wider significance.
The necessary self-profiling of all Facebook users leads inevitably to a further anti-democratic phenomenon: labelling. Facebook’s design encourages us to create stable images of ourselves, our identities become fixed, our thoughts archived, our ‘friends’ selected accordingly and our status based on their number. The prerogative of the image on Facebook follows rules of self-branding success that lead to the formation of prejudice and stereotypes. Uniqueness becomes stereotype.
Facebook argues it has a democratic role because of the participation with which it is associated: users are not just consumers of information, but participant and interactive co-creators of content – ‘prosumers’ (a fusion of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’). However, in practice, the methods of interaction with content on Facebook are very similar to the passive consumption of information in non-interactive formats. Users are far more likely to view than to create content; more likely to scroll through the feed than to comment. And by far the most viewed content is video. To part-icipate is to be part of something. Involvement, which implies belonging, is a more accurate term here than participation. Involvement suggests an active role of the person who involves, and a passive role of the person who becomes involved. This is different from ‘participation’ and its promise of a shared or equal opportunity to influence events.
Facebook’s encouragement of public communication and dialogue seems democratic at first: it asks “What do you think?” and encourages users to create a public post. The belief that social networks have enhanced communication is widespread, but this is challenged if we look at how the mode of communication has shifted. As Media and Communications scholar Manuel Castells puts it, a medium can offer interpersonal (one-to-one) communication, or mass communication (one-to-many); Facebook offers what seems at first to be many-to-many communication but is in fact what Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’. Although any post potentially can reach a global audience, like radio and television, on Facebook a person speaks mostly about himself or herself, and no response is required. Unlike in journalism, on Facebook, the addressee of communication disappears.
The principle of social networking on offer should not be confused with the ability to create sustainable networks that can act to change things. Networking on Facebook is plural. Each user is involved in different networks, without necessarily belonging to at least one coherent group or community. So in order to express the desire for, let alone further the cause of, social change – a key purpose of democracy – Facebook’s apparent challenge to the hierarchical structure of old institutions depends on being successfully designed and promoted by social network managers. This power can be monetized: a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Facebook is first and foremost a private profit-making company: an underlying reality that explains both why all these democratic ideals are not realized, and why they are communicated as ideals. Since 2012, the more personal and private information Facebook has received from its users, the more data it can monetize. Dallas Smyth (1981) forty years ago emphasizing: “If the service is free, then we are products.” It is no accident that the design of Facebook online space encourages us to show and share our private lives, without emphasising the extraction of our private data as its underlying commercial – and increasingly political – purpose.
The principle of social networking on offer should not be confused with the ability to create sustainable networks that can act to change things.
In sum, Facebook reverses the very idea of what is public, common and shared. It redefines and distorts our understanding of the basic concepts by which ‘democracy’ (however variously imagined) is understood. There are few reasons why these aspects of Facebook’s practices should change. For me it seems that the way forward is to work on alternative platforms that are designed specifically to support issues of shared and common responsibility. There are many such issues, and they are urgent. The stakes in exposing the gap between declared ideals and real effects in practice has never been greater.
Odrysia Hrudka is a doctoral researcher at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Ukraine.
 Dean, J. (2009) Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies: communicative capitalism and left politics. Durham & London: Duke University Press
 D’Ancona, M. (2017) Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. Political Science Ebury Press
 Castells, M. (2010) The Rise of the Network Society. Singapore: Wiley Blackwell
 Smythe, D. (1981) On the audience commodity and its work, In Dependency road: communications, capitalism, consciousness and Canada. Ablex Publishing Corp, Norwood. pp. 22-51.