Adwoa Afful is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Technology
This post is the second in a two-part series about organizing on Facebook and its implications for digital social justice. Click here to read part one.
A few weeks back, the New York Times marked the occasion of Facebook’s 15th birthday with a video that satirized the infamously cloying birthday montages that pop up on users’ own birthdays. Instead of cheery photos, the parody video pulled up some of the damning facts about Facebook that have come to light in the past two years, among them the revelations that the platform’s usership has steeply declined and that roughly 116 million accounts may be fake. More seriously, the video also highlighted Facebook’s role in fueling international violence, including anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
Facebook’s sheer size and market share, while not as horrific as its role in fomenting genocide, has also put it under increasing media scrutiny. Along with Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google parent company Alphabet, Facebook has a history of potentially breaking antitrust laws; each company is now so big that any competitor threatening to encroach on their market share will get bought out by one of them. The dominance of Facebook in this tech ecosystem seems so complete that organizers whose work is largely done online worry that moving to a new, less ethically dicey platform will be akin to erasing themselves.
My previous post described the catch-22 that currently stymies many social-justice organizers who host groups on Facebook: In using one of the most effective outreach tools in existence, they risk exposing their members to Facebook’s worst business practices. Each of the organizers I interviewed expressed a desire for an alternative to Facebook, but also pointed out that no other platform currently has Facebook’s reach. Nevertheless, it’s time for such groups to say goodbye, according to Alex Leitch, a Toronto-based technology consultant and strategist, and Molly Sauter, author of the 2014 book The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. The “rent” demanded by the platform, they argue—the breaches of privacy, the mismanagement of user data, and the public dissembling about both—is too high. Though Leitch acknowledges that the idea of “hav[ing] to move in the internet world is new,” Sauter points out that, “People move in the physical world all the time”—especially when expectations of privacy and accountability have failed.
So what do Leitch and Sauter propose? Simply put: Break up Facebook. They are far from the first to float this idea, but think it bears repeating that it’s currently the best option for protecting civil liberties and privacy. Sauter is direct: “Take out the Messenger service, and make it its own company. Make Instagram its own company. Make WhatsApp its own company. Bust. It. Up. Make its publishing wing, where its mostly news media, gut it, take it right out. Change [Facebook] Groups into its own thing and federate its login system into an ID system for the internet that’s controlled by NATO.”
Leitch and Sauter underscore that Facebook is a monopoly whose staying power is in large part due to its ability to undercut competitors by quickly cloning their innovations. The fact that it could almost effortlessly frustrate attempts to stop its dominance is one reason it’s so difficult to imagine viable alternatives for organizing and mobilizing. But though Facebook may be great at helping people organize international marches, email can be just as effective for local grassroots organizing—and unlike Facebook, email is federated, meaning your personal data is protected there in ways it isn’t on Facebook. (In this sense, email would operate like a federated social network where user data is portable, allowing users to securely move their private data across platforms, giving them greater control over it.) Nasma Ahmed, who founded the nonprofit Digital Justice Lab with a mission to support and educate communities of color on digital issues, suggests using encrypted email services like Proton Mail to help ensure that whatever you share with group members is inaccessible by third-party data-mining agencies.
But though Digital Justice Lab is developing more specific policy recommendations, Ahmed cautions against depending solely on individuals or private organizations to come up with solutions to tech’s biggest issues. Instead, she calls for government policy interventions that are collaboratively developed with the public. She points out that, for instance, the North American telecommunications infrastructure that formed the “backbone” of the early internet used by many tech companies was paid for with public funds, and maintains that governments should leverage that as a way to demand greater accountability when it comes to data privacy. Leitch, for one, suggests nationalizing Facebook. As with the call to break up Facebook, this isn’t a new idea: Nationalization could allow for more collective ownership over the information we share online, and potentially rein in the power Facebook and its fellow behemoths currently exert.
Nationalizing big tech could also offer social-justice groups an alternative to Facebook’s often discriminatory algorithms, though this would require a number of resources: governments with tech-savvy representatives and staff to lay the groundwork for this project, funded agencies equipped to undertake such a large endeavor, and a big-data strategy that works in the public’s best interest—ideally in collaboration with grassroots organizations like Digital Justice Lab.
Facebook may be great at helping people organize international marches, [but] email can be just as effective for local grassroots organizing—and, unlike Facebook, email is federated, meaning your personal data is protected there.
But trusting governments to create a program that prioritizes ethics and transparency—and trusting them to take cues on best practices from grassroots and social-justice groups—seems like a pipe dream, especially at a time when both Canada and the United States seek to privatize the management of as many public services as possible. And even if such a plan were feasible, it would not protect users from government surveillance—nor would it guarantee protection from the same hate groups that currently use Facebook to spread disinformation and harassment.
With such bleak prospects for viable alternatives, what can be done? Ahmed, for one, doesn’t believe that social-justice groups have to abandon Facebook in order to continue organizing; instead, she argues for a more mitigated approach to organizing on Facebook. Throughout our interview, Ahmed stressed that she “[doesn’t] believe in shaming people for using Facebook. The one thing that I think is important is for organizers to constantly think about the risks.” And that could be as simple as group moderators and members taking a moment before posting anything to ask, “What are the risks? What are the concerns [around privacy]?” Ahmed suggests, for example, that organizers do the bulk of their work without Facebook, and use the platform only to organize events. (Organizing online may be done through an encrypted chat app like Discord.)
Her points are echoed by Hazel, a moderator for the Toronto-based tech group for people of color IntersectTO, who notes that she wouldn’t have met her co-organizers without Facebook but who now is much more intentional about it. (For instance: “I still message friends and co-organizers on Facebook messenger however, if possible I try to stick to Slack/WhatsApp.” Hazel wishes that her local government would “[push] for more ethics around data,” and Ahmed agrees that a crucial part of reform involves creating policies and anti-monopoly laws that protect organizers, particularly ones from already exploited or marginalized communities.
It’s important to keep in mind that organizing existed long before Facebook. And while non-digital organizing and mobilization strategies, like postering or zinemaking, don’t have the reach and sheer numbers made possible by social media does, they are still very much alive in activist communities and continue to foster the deep connections that are needed to sustain movements. If organizing on Facebook replicates, as Montreal-based organizer Bita puts it, “all that’s wrong with society, for sure,” perhaps the biggest change that online community-building can implement is a cultural one that relies on the vital, in-person ingenuity of members and allies to create new tools for bringing people together.