Two ways to build global community

Media
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A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person's eye, in Zenica, 13 March 2015. © REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Last Thursday Mark Zuckerberg published a long piece called ‘Building a Global Community’. In it he explained that his company could help ‘develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.’ The effect was unnerving. Zuckerberg, is the unchallenged chief executive officer of the world’s largest social network and controls a majority of its voting stock. As such he couldn’t help sounding like a monarch issuing a proclamation to his beloved subjects.

Although he talked about ‘a large-scale democratic process’ in his article, this would be used to establish ‘community standards’ in different regions of the planet; a little more nudity here, a little less violence there. Facebook might go so far as to introduce ‘a worldwide voting system’ to give us ‘more voice and control.’ But it might not. It’s very much Mr Zuckerberg’s decision.

We can be sure that democracy in his kingdom will not extend to questions of ownership or executive control. These will remain topics for private discussion between Facebook’s senior executives and key public sector institutions, like the NSA and the FBI. Facebook says it wants to regulate its platform to promote community and to prevent the fragmentation of its users into separate and antagonistic groups. But its nature and its agenda will not be subject to effective democratic oversight and direction.

'If one project with the right architecture – radically decentralized and encrypted data, free software and a transparent and democratically accountable governance structure – succeeds, then it could grow rapidly and displace its corporate competitors'

On the same day the Platform Cooperatives Conference in London brought together hundreds of people with a very different vision of the role ‘a large-scale democratic process’ might play in building a global community. Platform co-operativism seeks to apply co-operative principles of shared ownership and democratic control of the enterprise to the emerging world of the digital platforms. It proposes that networks of producers and consumers own the networks they use. Once we strip away the PR chat about global community, Silicon Valley start-ups are attempts to extract monopoly rents from the value created by others. The political, financial and communicative architecture favours them but a very different model for the digital economy is possible. At the moment platform co-operativism is a mixture of small start-ups and far-reaching thought experiments. Imagine, the platform co-operators ask, a Facebook owned by its users. The really existing Facebook is a profit-seeking company that sells access to potentially lucrative demographics to commercial customers. A user-owned Facebook would allow us to keep control of our data and to communicate without the distorting effects of corporate intermediation. Instead of a global community managed and monetized by one owner, we would decide for ourselves how the platform should be governed, how information should flow from user to user, how we become audible and intelligible to one another. Maybe our vision of the future of the platform will come to resemble Zuckerberg’s notion of a ‘global community’, maybe it won’t. At the moment we have no way of knowing. We have almost no control over what happens to the content we generate.

The difference between a co-operatively owned and controlled platform and Facebook is perhaps most acute in the matter of journalism. As late as August 2016 Zuckerberg was sticking to the line that ‘we are a tech company, not a media company.’ His note last week acknowledged what has become glaringly obvious in the last year: Facebook can decide what people on its platform are exposed to. In order to justify the vast revenues that this ability generates, Zuckerberg has accepted a degree of editorial responsibility.

Facebook is now looking to identify ‘sensational’ publishers and to fight hoaxes ‘the way we fight spam.’ Zuckerberg is also talking in terms familiar to liberal advocates of balance and a plural public sphere:

Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign. A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more.

These moves are part of an attempt to build what Zuckerberg calls ‘common understanding’. But it is a common understanding that emerges from a set of governing assumptions imposed unilaterally by the controller of the platform. A mainstream world-view is reconstituted in accordance with judgements that are not themselves open to effective challenge. In this system journalism that, for example, pays due consideration to the liberal-conservative dimension might well qualify as offering a range of relevant perspectives, even though it treats the corporate control of the world’s dominant content platform as an uncontroversial and natural fact of life.

A platform co-operative approach to information could keep the debate about what constitutes adequate plurality in the open. Each of us could be responsible for managing what kinds of information we are exposed to, and we could have the power to ensure that propagandists couldn’t simply buy their way into our timeline. There would be no need for a monarch, however well-intentioned, because we would be governing ourselves.

We could also debate what kinds of structural features we need if we are to remain adequately informed. At the moment a central authority committed to the existing political economy mediates this debate on Facebook. A co-operatively owned and governed platform could promise each user a guaranteed equality of voice, and develop the technical resources necessary to make good on this promise. Inexorably debate would come to address the material basis of communicative equality and the relationship between the platform and national jurisdictions.

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Facebook is proposing a kind of watery globalism, in which the company curates public opinion in partnership with both the US state and its corporate allies. We have it in our power to create a platform on which citizens can address themselves to issues that concern us in ways that we choose. Instead of being dependent on content providers who work for advertisers, whether Facebook itself or legacy media that they permit to survive, we will direct funds to researchers and analysts who work directly for us, and whose long-term interests can therefore be made to align more closely with ours.

If we succeed the result will not be quite so rewarding as a consumer experience – who wants to hear things that are disagreeable, especially when they are true? We will also have to recognize, and find ways to meet, the costs of journalism that serves the needs of broad publics. But a co-operatively owned and governed platform would form the basis for a refined understanding of what other people think, and of the ways that our own account of the world might be improved. Furthermore it would be a means by which the citizen body can discover its points of agreement and of dissent for itself, without the distorting effects of rich and therefore disproportionately loud, voices.

At the moment no co-operatively controlled and owned platform can plausibly compete with Facebook. There are formidable obstacles to creating one. The forces pushing for an egalitarian solution to the problems of privacy and publicity are disunited and weak. The large co-operatives have shown little interest in building co-operative platforms. Trade unions have shied away from the kind of strategic investments in communications that underpinned the triumph of social democracy in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Few politicians appear even vaguely interested in developing a co-operative economy, much less in tackling the corporate control of information. Meanwhile the state and the corporate sector are determined to prevent new technology from weakening their effective veto on forms of public speech that they dislike.

But there are grounds for optimism. John McDonnell is a senior figure in the current Labour Party in the UK. Speaking at the Open Co-ops conference last week it was clear that he understands how the state could strengthen the co-operative sector. Matthew Brown, a Labour councillor in Preston, Lancashire, is already using the limited powers of local government to make a start. The platform co-operative initiative is only a few years old but it is already beginning to articulate a different vision for our shared future. It even has a website.

The democracy movements in North America, Europe and the Middle East all sought to break the existing communicative order. Once the young people who provided so much of their impetus grasp the transformative potential of co-operative platforms there is no telling what they will achieve. They have the skills to make a start, and the social power to attract others.

After all, if one project with the right architecture – radically decentralized and encrypted data, free software and a transparent and democratically accountable governance structure – succeeds, then it could grow rapidly and displace its corporate competitors. It does not have to be perfect, as long as the structure permits gradual improvement. No one actively wants to hand themselves over to data harvesters, one moment of inadvertent disclosure at a time. The benefits of democratic control of social media and other digital spaces are an article of faith. They need to become a matter of lived experience.

At the end of his piece Zuckerberg quotes Abraham Lincoln:

We can succeed only by concert. It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but, 'can we all do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew.

Lincoln was a fierce opponent of the concentration of wealth. His republicanism sought to preserve an economy characterized by independent production and democratic oversight. It is always a mistake to claim historical figures for contemporary purposes but Lincoln’s model political economy has much more in common with the platform co-operators than with the CEO of Facebook.

As ever, we can only succeed in concert. And if we do not act now then the moment will pass away. The system of centralized control established in America after Lincoln’s violent death and exported worldwide after 1945 will survive the end of broadcast and newspaper oligopoly into the age of digital communication. A terrain of managed opposition and orchestrated controversy will stretch from each atomized individual to the distant, shared horizon.

With a little effort each of us can imagine better. But can we all do better, against determined and concerted opposition? History teaches us that our capacity for self-defeating division is almost infinite. But it also teaches us that anything can happen, even liberation.

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