Facebook: a social media platform founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 which currently has 2.3 billion users. The article “Dear Mr Zuckerberg: the problem isn’t the internet, it’s Facebook” by Siva Vaidhyanathan does not only celebrate the 15 years of Facebook’s existence but also adds to the recent discourse around Facebook. Using a social constructivism perspective, this paper provides insight in how Vaidhyanathan argues that Zuckerberg is gaining more power which leads to moral panic. In this paper, I will analyse Vaidhyanathan’s perspective on Zuckerberg’s position and company, and I will use the concepts social constructivism and technological imaginary to further examine Vaidhyanathan’s perspective in this discourse.
Vaidhyanathan starts off his article by arguing that Mark Zuckerberg has built a platform which not only made him very rich, but also gave him a lot of power. This power is shown in how interaction between users on his platform is based upon his rules, as described by Vaidhyanathan: “your company hosts “networks of people” but they interact on your terms, managed by your rules and algorithms.” Even though he certainly does have control, he denies the amount of power he has over the users: “your post not only ignores your power, it denies it.” Furthermore, Zuckerberg claims that “networks of people replace traditional hierarchies” but these traditional hierarches, according to Vaidhyanathan, have used features of Facebook to do damage to the world while Zuckerberg claims these features have actually liberated the world. Zuckerberg, according to Vaidhyanathan, tries to blame the internet as a whole for the problems on the internet to confuse people. This way he tries to hide that he uses his platform to gain power. Thus, Vaidhyanathan describes how Facebook is the opposite of what the internet was before Facebook by saying “the internet is open, configurable, distributed, and based on open code. Facebook is nothing of the sort.” Concluding, Vaidhyanathan describes in this article how Zuckerberg may be rich and powerful, but he remains clueless about what is going on in the world by thinking that the problem lays with the internet and not with his own platform, while Facebook is not as open, free and liberating as Zuckerberg implies.
Facebook as an element to change society
HELLO Raymond Williams uses the idea of social constructivism to see with what intention media are developed, how technologies are employed by humans and how this has a certain impact on society. A technology, according to Williams, “becomes available as an element or a medium in a process of change that is in any case occurring or about to occur.” Thus, Williams describes how technology can be used as an element in a process of change in society. Furthermore, he describes that technologies “arise from human intention and agency.” This shows that humans, and producers such as Zuckerberg, have agency because the medium is made and used by humans. Therefore, they can use the technology as an element to change society. If we use this concept of social constructivism, we can see that Vaidhyanathan describes how Zuckerberg has built this platform based on his “set of ideals” which shows that his agency behind the platform can be seen as him using technology as an element to change society. Furthermore, Zuckerberg’s agency is seen in the description given by Vaidhyanathan where he mentions how Zuckerberg has influenced society by giving national leaders a platform and power: “your staff actively helped national leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte assume power.” The human agency of Zuckerberg behind this technology is what changed society. As Vaidhyanathan also describes: “you do realize that you run one of those hulking institutions, right?” By saying this, Vaidhyanathan puts the emphasis again on how Zuckerberg has an incredible amount of power. Therefore, if we use the concept social constructivism, we can see how this power could also be used as power to change society.
Fears for Zuckerberg’s power
By using the concept technological imaginary, we can focus more on society. Technological imaginary, according to Martin Lister et al, “refers us to the way that new technologies are taken up within a culture and are hooked into, or have projected onto them, its wider social and psychological desires and fears.” These desires are projected onto new media phenomena and the “cyberspaces and places of virtual life promised by new media become the new utopias which we reach for.” The new places promised by new media are seen as “a solution to social and cultural ills.” But technological imaginary not only focuses on people’s desires, but also focuses on the dissatisfactions that they are experiencing in their current situation. From this perspective, we can understand what Vaidhyanathan writes about the current situation: “no one who, like me, championed the values of the Internet back before Facebook ruined everything.” This shows a clear dissatisfaction with the current situation in which Zuckerberg is using Facebook to gain power. These dissatisfactions can also become fears for the ‘new’ or ‘better’ media which is the idea of moral panic. As Stanley Cohen describes, “societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A […] person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to social values and interests.” This shows how Cohen describes that societies have sudden moments of panic and fear and these fears people have can also be projected onto the new media phenomenon. Vaidhyanathan shows this moral panic by describing how Facebook is used to do damage to the world: “anti-democratic, inhumane, hateful and violent forces hijacking your server and doing great damage to the world.” Furthermore, they use specific features that according to Zuckerberg are not the problem: “Myanmar’s Buddhist clerisy […] declared a campaign of genocide against them using the very features of Facebook that you claim have liberated the world.” If we use the concept of moral panic, we can see how there can be moral panic about how Zuckerberg’s platform gives people the chance to do damage to the world. As a consequence, satisfactions that were there about Facebook, such as helping people connect and letting them freely interact, can turn into fears about Zuckerberg’s power over the platform.
Siva Vaidhyanathan’s main point in this article is showing how ignorant Mark Zuckerberg is while being able to influence a big part of society. The human agency of Mark Zuckerberg behind the platform Facebook has shaped society because it gives people the opportunity to communicate, but they do not have complete freedom to do so. Furthermore, the hope for a platform for communication can turn into moral panic because of the amount of power Zuckerberg has gained over the platform.