Senator Richard Blumenthal mentioned a familiar metaphor in the Facebook whistleblower hearing on Tuesday. “Facebook and Big Tech are facing their Big Tobacco moment,” he said, arguing that social networking products “can be addictive and toxic to children.” Frances Haugen, the aforementioned whistleblower, has similarly called Facebook’s decisions “catastrophic” and has said the company “chooses profits over security.”
Can these phrases remind you of Big Tobacco? Of course. They also make me think of Big Oil.
At its best, Facebook’s products are a resource that has led to something good. (Connecting people online can be a powerful thing!) The company also produces a myriad of by-products that lead to a lot of side effects. (Helping to destroy democracy was not exactly part of Mark Zuckerberg’s plan for world domination.) With nearly 3 billion users across the globe, Facebook is not disappearing anytime soon.
The Big Tobacco metaphor does a good job of framing Facebook’s products as unhealthy. The only problem with comparing the two is that you can pretty easily avoid cigarettes these days. But it’s actually quite difficult to spend a day on the internet without interacting with Facebook.
Enter the oil metaphor. Like Facebook, there are disadvantages to fossil fuels. Oil and gas have historically provided us with a relatively inexpensive, seemingly abundant energy supply. This has led to cool inventions like the internal combustion engine and the cars it drives. But like Facebook, fossil fuels have many disadvantages – such as how our dependence on them destroys the planet – but it is also almost impossible to imagine the world functioning without them.
Most of us can not just quit Facebook. The whole world can not easily pick up and move to a new platform. At this point, we are so dependent on Facebook products that suddenly shutting them down can stop entire economies. We saw this play on Monday when a server configuration error removed Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for hours. This may have seemed like a nuisance to many people in the United States, where there are plenty of other ways to communicate and shop online. But in the global south, some of Facebook’s products, especially WhatsApp, have become essential services.
“Developing countries like India, Mexico and Brazil have come to rely on these free messaging services,” Callum Sillars, a social media expert at Ampere Analysis, told the Guardian this week. “They are often the backbone of communication in these countries. Small businesses and informal economies are particularly dependent on Facebook services. ”
Sounds a bit like our addiction to oil, right? For example, if we woke up next Monday and all the oil and gas on the planet had disappeared, it would be chaotic. But it would not be as bad in the United States, where consumption of renewable energy has increased rapidly as it would be in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The developing countries in these areas are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their daily energy needs and they do not have a viable alternative right now.
You can also extend the analogy. Facebook is like the oil industry because both play an oversized role in geopolitics. Facebook, like oil, makes huge profits while causing immense harm to society. Facebook, like oil companies in yesteryear, has a habit of swallowing smaller competitors to increase its control over the market. Comparing Facebook to Standard Oil is actually a pretty fun thought experiment, especially when you look at the reverse relationship between public sentiment and state intervention in Standard Oil. In short, it was only in people’s opinion that the Standard Oil monopoly plummeted in the early 1900s – thanks in part to the ridiculous journalist Ida Tarbell – that cartel regulators swept to break up John D. Rockefeller’s empire.
What will happen to Mark Zuckerberg’s empire when it confronts its recent crisis over the damage it is causing to society is still unclear, but this time it feels more serious than its past scandals. In his testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, Haugen gave lawmakers a blueprint for fixing Facebook, and Senator Blumenthal urged Zuckerberg to appear before the committee and answer some questions – specifically about recent revelations, such as how Facebook knew Instagram hurt teenage girls, but did nothing about it. If his appearance happens this month, Zuckerberg may even encounter some leaders in the oil industry testifying before the House Monitoring Committee on Climate Information.
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