I was shocked to learn that Facebook (allegedly) puts profits over people. Or I would have been if I knew nothing about Facebook or American capitalism. “Profits over people” is a core principle of how our economic system operates, right up there with “money talks.”
While Facebook has weathered numerous controversies in the past, it might finally face serious consequences for its alleged misdeeds. In many ways, the testimony of Frances Haugen served to confirm views about the harms and dangers of Facebook and its associated products, such as Instagram. Most importantly, she provided a trove of Facebook documents to support her claims.
Pushed into playing defense, Facebook has decided to borrow the playbook used by tobacco companies in response to analogous misdeeds, such as launching ad hominem attacks on whistleblowers and critics . While the tobacco companies and Facebook obviously differ, there are some fundamental similarities. They both profit from products they know are dangerous, with the products often intentionally made more dangerous to boost profits. They also both aggressively target the youth, following an ancient strategy. Like tobacco products, Facebook seems even more harmful for young people, making this targeting even more morally reprehensible. But perhaps the tobacco company analogy will hold in other ways.
After years of deceit, the tobacco industry eventually had something of a judgment day. Many governments began imposing or expanding their regulations, there were huge settlements, and a decline in smoking. Some predicted that the days of big tobacco were over. However, tobacco companies proved quite resilient. In 2001 American tobacco companies had $78 billion in revenues. In 2016 this was $177 billion. While cigarette sales are still declining, tobacco stocks have been performing extremely well. Given that Facebook has vast financial resources and an addictive product line, it should be able to do at least as well as the tobacco companies did. While the products are different, Facebook can make use of the strategies and tactics successfully developed and deployed by tobacco companies. They can also afford to buy politicians and talented people to assist them in their efforts. But perhaps there is a critical difference.
While Facebook has the cash to lobby, they do not seem to have a loyal cadre of politicians who are dedicated to fighting for them. Tobacco companies, in part because of their economic importance to tobacco growing states, enjoyed (and still enjoy) the advantage of die-hard advocates in Congress and local governments. Facebook seems to have, perhaps, erred by failing to win key allies in government. The right, left and Congress have found something they agree on: they are angry at Facebook and believe that something needs to be done about the company. While there are some shared dislikes, there are some differences. The right got rather mad at Facebook because when the company started to police misinformation, it impacted the right far more than the left. This is for the obvious reason that the American right is a massive generator and consumer of misinformation ranging from the big lie about the 2020 election to lies about COVID. While the left is not composed of moral saints, they generally dislike Facebook because it hurts our democracy and hurts people in general. They also tend to dislike corporations that put profits over people—which is most corporation. It might turn out that Facebook has miscalculated and made enemies of the right and the left (and center), leaving it with little hope of getting allies in this fight. Other than those it can buy. As such, Facebook might face consequences—perhaps some new regulation and perhaps a few fines. We might even be shocked to see a huge corporation face serious consequences for its misdeeds.