Did you see the big news last week that the Federal Trade Commission is considering filing antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook that could wind up breaking up the big tech behemoths? If you missed this item, it’s not too surprising since something like 80 percent of Americans get their news from… Facebook and Google. Or don’t get their news, in this case anyway, since it’s not like either company was exactly blasting out the story.
Regulators have accused Google of using unfair business practices to illegally protect the company’s monopoly over online search from competitors. The company has, not surprisingly, rejected these accusations as baseless. One exasperated Google executive argued that it’s preposterous to suggest that his company has become synonymous with online search, and that if people wanted additional proof they could, quote, “just Google it.”
Compared to Google, Facebook has experienced more anger from the general public. This is likely because Google is widely seen as convenient, useful and easy, whereas Facebook has been credibly charged with illegally selling users’ private data, promoting and profiting off of white supremacy and being run by a cybernetic alien who many believe was sent to earth to enslave us all. And also, what’s with all the food photos?
The Algorithm Method
I took a break from Facebook a few months ago, and only started checking in again recently. During my absence, and by a logic that I can’t fathom, Facebook determined that I want to spend my time on the social media platform watching two kinds of videos: men’s singles tennis highlights and daring animal rescues. So if my experience is any guide, this multi-billion dollar company’s vaunted algorithm, presumably honed to pin-point precision over many years by countless tech wizards to understand each user’s specific tastes and preferences, is… absolutely spot on. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic - are you kidding me? These guys are unbelievable! And a group of people desperately laboring against the clock to free a baby elephant stuck in the mud while the baby’s mother paces nervously nearby? What, I’m NOT going to watch that?
My other favorite activity on Facebook is swiping through the list of “people you may know” to see the friends I have in common with other individuals Facebook thinks I should become friends with. Of course, I’m familiar with most of the names because we have an obvious connection, like that we went to high school together or are former coworkers. But sometimes Facebook suggests I connect with people I definitely don’t know but with whom I have curiously unconnected “friends” in common. That’s when I find myself wondering, “How does a random kindergarten teacher in Ames, Iowa also know the receptionist at my old job, the kid who used to wet his bed at the summer camp I went to in 1979 and my Uncle’s Lou’s bail bondsman?”
But speaking of wetting themselves, if anyone’s going to get to the bottom of whether these tech giants are violating antitrust laws, it’s undoubtedly the cobweb-covered mummies in the United States Senate. After all, many of them were among the original 1890 co-sponsors of the Sherman Antitrust Act. It’s always entertaining to watch these Senate hearings, as the elderly Senators who still refer to their iPhone as “my blackberry” try to question the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey on the inner workings of these complex, highly integrated multi-billion dollar tech corporations. At home we watch these “Bewildered Elderly vs. Uber-nerd” face-offs and realize that while what remains of our fragile democracy hangs in the balance, our elected representatives use these hearings to either ask what Facebook and Google can do to persuade people on the Internet to stop being so mean to them or if the CEOs can explain what, exactly, an “app” is.
Facebook: Gateway To Fascism?
So the question remains: is Facebook truly a soulless, mercenary, time-sucking corporate monolith that must be broken up before collectively reprogramming us into zombified automatons who exist solely to serve the company’s bottom line? Hard to say. Living near Facebook’s corporate headquarters, I’ve met a fair number of people who work for Facebook and, as far as I can tell, they don’t come across as eager to use mind control to destroy our democratic society and replace it with a neo-fascist surveillance state. Or at least if they do, it’s not apparent during neighborhood open houses and PTA meetings.
Of course, it’s not actually a question of whether Facebook is evil — unconscionable corporate behavior is often not only legal but also highly profitable. Why, just look at the success enjoyed by the likes of Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Exxon and Build-A-Bear Workshop (they know what they did). Instead, the pertinent question in antitrust cases is whether a company has established an illegal monopoly by cornering the market on one specific *kind* of evil.
That’s a complicated and thorny legal and legislative question, and one that we may not reasonably be expected to answer within the confines of an 800-word humor column. But independent of what action the FTC takes, the rest of us might be better off taking the initiative ourselves by deleting Facebook altogether. A 2019 study found that users who deactivated their Facebook accounts reported being happier and less depressed and anxious.
And now that we’ve got a vaccine that should (fingers crossed) put an end to the pandemic, what better time to get off of Facebook and start doing more outside the house? For my part, I could replace watching tennis highlights with actually playing tennis, start getting personally involved in animal rescue efforts and, what the hell, maybe even finally schedule that trip up to the state penitentiary to visit dear old Uncle Lou.