The Curious Case of the Democrats vs Zuckerberg

The worst kind of fight in one in which you wish for both sides’ demise. Whatever satisfaction you get from watching one foe whipped is instantly tempered by the victor’s success. It’s a no-win situation.

Watching Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defend his digital empire before menacing lawmakers was one such brawl. In early September, Facebook disclosed that it had suspended hundreds of accounts associated with a St. Petersburg-based website that dispensed pro-Kremlin propaganda. The long-held suspicion that Putin operatives attempted to influence the 2016 election was confirmed.

Then the levee broke.

With appetites whetted with the possibility of finally cutting the social media giant down a peg, lawmakers, including an enlivened Senator Richard Burr (R-SC), demanded Facebook executives testify before Congress on the matter. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) declared, licking his massive chops with gleeful anticipation. During his recent big business conclave, former New York City mayor and slurpee-hater Michael Bloomberg said Facebook employees should be required to “read every message” posted on the platform -- a demand far beyond the realm of reasonability.

The pressure got to Zuckerberg. Out of patriotism or profit (the latter, most likely), he announced new restrictions on political ads. The social kingpin also revealed that he is working in full cooperation with the U.S. government, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing to find out if President Trump colluded with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton. 

This was a remarkable concession in what is, at heart, a power struggle. “All these years, the 33-year-old founder of Facebook has been dismissive of the idea that social media and A.I. could be used for global domination — or even that they should be regulated,” Maureen Dowd giddily wrote in the New York Times. Now, Zuck and his digi-army are on the defensive. They’re being forced to accept more regulation by politicians who don’t have the first clue about their algorithmic magic.

The Russia business has awoken policy makers to a cruel reality: A private entity has the eyes of over a billion people in the world. Its influence is unparalleled. The government commandeering every television station in the country wouldn’t come close to the ability Facebook has to broadcast one universal message across the platform.

So the empire is striking back. Facebook is ostensibly under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. But with its unfiltered stream directly to the palm of your hand, Zuckerberg’s behemoth exercises what Orwell called “reality control.” By policing the flow of information, it can, quite literally, help define what is real in the individual mind.

With its capacity to sway public opinion, the question is: Who controls whom?

As a techie, Zuckerberg loathes the added attention. His clandestine campaign for president, zigzagging across the country, will now face more scrutiny.

Putting a slight damper on Zuckerberg’s imperial ambition is a small victory. The downside is that it feeds into the myth that somehow Vladimir Putin put Trump in the White House. If Democrats are to be believed, the Kremlin dropping hundreds of millions of rubles on anti-Hillary ads changed middle America’s mind about the inevitable Madam President.

But as Rachel Stoltzfoos of the Daily Caller News Foundation points out, this requires toddler-level gullibility. If the Democrats’ theory is correct, $150,000 in rinky-dink ads determined an election in which more than a billion dollars was spent.

Facebook has influence. But not that much influence -- yet anyway. Don’t expect Democrats to let up on making Zuckerberg a punching bag, though. He’s one of a handful excuses they can point to in order to avoid coming to grips with their besting by Trump.

This whole episode is a warning for the future. Facebook has reshaped the way news is consumed. Traditional media outlets are at the mercy of an inhuman decider. Many, through no fault of their own, are finding themselves on the losing end.

Facebook has taken over a large chunk of the news publishing business by co-opting its lifeline: ad revenue. “The reality of the American media is that Google and Facebook own nearly the entire advertising market,” writes Lee Smith in Tablet magazine. By nearly monopolizing the means publications have to monetize their product, Facebook has its hooks deep in the news industry. Will journalists speak out against Zuckerberg when it could cost them their livelihood?

Conservatives are normally wary of extending government’s power over business. But as Facebook cozies up to the left, the greater chance there is it will be used as a weaponized propaganda arm for liberalism. Hillary Clinton received over $100,000 in campaign donations from its employees last year -- far exceeding the amount given to any Republican. There’s no hyperbole when the president labels Facebook “anti-Trump.”

Some on the right have realized Facebook’s potential in suppressing unorthodox views. Former White House strategist and Breitbart bigwig Steve Bannon considered regulating the company as a public entity. Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Bannon reportedly mulled the idea of having a mole apply to the social media giant and report back from the inside.

A cockamamie scheme like that was destined to backfire. Zuckerberg isn’t dumb enough to let just anyone waltz into his A.I. fortress. But Bannon, a terra firma philosopher who doesn’t let his head get lost in the clouds, showed foresight. Republican blindness toward business is dissipating.

Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that the “pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own.” Zuckerberg wouldn’t be the first to parlay his private enterprise into a political career (our current president is testament to that), but he would be the most potent.

Facebook didn’t determine the last election, but as the company continues to gobble up attention spans like an insatiable Pac-Man, it’s plausible that it could one day skew a presidential contest.

That should give even the strictest laissez-faire conservative pause. Power’s a force not limited to the state. In some cases, it can be as innocent as the simple brushing of a phone screen with your thumb.

The worst kind of fight in one in which you wish for both sides’ demise. Whatever satisfaction you get from watching one foe whipped is instantly tempered by the victor’s success. It’s a no-win situation.

Watching Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defend his digital empire before menacing lawmakers was one such brawl. In early September, Facebook disclosed that it had suspended hundreds of accounts associated with a St. Petersburg-based website that dispensed pro-Kremlin propaganda. The long-held suspicion that Putin operatives attempted to influence the 2016 election was confirmed.

Then the levee broke.

With appetites whetted with the possibility of finally cutting the social media giant down a peg, lawmakers, including an enlivened Senator Richard Burr (R-SC), demanded Facebook executives testify before Congress on the matter. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) declared, licking his massive chops with gleeful anticipation. During his recent big business conclave, former New York City mayor and slurpee-hater Michael Bloomberg said Facebook employees should be required to “read every message” posted on the platform -- a demand far beyond the realm of reasonability.

The pressure got to Zuckerberg. Out of patriotism or profit (the latter, most likely), he announced new restrictions on political ads. The social kingpin also revealed that he is working in full cooperation with the U.S. government, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing to find out if President Trump colluded with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton. 

This was a remarkable concession in what is, at heart, a power struggle. “All these years, the 33-year-old founder of Facebook has been dismissive of the idea that social media and A.I. could be used for global domination — or even that they should be regulated,” Maureen Dowd giddily wrote in the New York Times. Now, Zuck and his digi-army are on the defensive. They’re being forced to accept more regulation by politicians who don’t have the first clue about their algorithmic magic.

The Russia business has awoken policy makers to a cruel reality: A private entity has the eyes of over a billion people in the world. Its influence is unparalleled. The government commandeering every television station in the country wouldn’t come close to the ability Facebook has to broadcast one universal message across the platform.

So the empire is striking back. Facebook is ostensibly under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. But with its unfiltered stream directly to the palm of your hand, Zuckerberg’s behemoth exercises what Orwell called “reality control.” By policing the flow of information, it can, quite literally, help define what is real in the individual mind.

With its capacity to sway public opinion, the question is: Who controls whom?

As a techie, Zuckerberg loathes the added attention. His clandestine campaign for president, zigzagging across the country, will now face more scrutiny.

Putting a slight damper on Zuckerberg’s imperial ambition is a small victory. The downside is that it feeds into the myth that somehow Vladimir Putin put Trump in the White House. If Democrats are to be believed, the Kremlin dropping hundreds of millions of rubles on anti-Hillary ads changed middle America’s mind about the inevitable Madam President.

But as Rachel Stoltzfoos of the Daily Caller News Foundation points out, this requires toddler-level gullibility. If the Democrats’ theory is correct, $150,000 in rinky-dink ads determined an election in which more than a billion dollars was spent.

Facebook has influence. But not that much influence -- yet anyway. Don’t expect Democrats to let up on making Zuckerberg a punching bag, though. He’s one of a handful excuses they can point to in order to avoid coming to grips with their besting by Trump.

This whole episode is a warning for the future. Facebook has reshaped the way news is consumed. Traditional media outlets are at the mercy of an inhuman decider. Many, through no fault of their own, are finding themselves on the losing end.

Facebook has taken over a large chunk of the news publishing business by co-opting its lifeline: ad revenue. “The reality of the American media is that Google and Facebook own nearly the entire advertising market,” writes Lee Smith in Tablet magazine. By nearly monopolizing the means publications have to monetize their product, Facebook has its hooks deep in the news industry. Will journalists speak out against Zuckerberg when it could cost them their livelihood?

Conservatives are normally wary of extending government’s power over business. But as Facebook cozies up to the left, the greater chance there is it will be used as a weaponized propaganda arm for liberalism. Hillary Clinton received over $100,000 in campaign donations from its employees last year -- far exceeding the amount given to any Republican. There’s no hyperbole when the president labels Facebook “anti-Trump.”

Some on the right have realized Facebook’s potential in suppressing unorthodox views. Former White House strategist and Breitbart bigwig Steve Bannon considered regulating the company as a public entity. Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Bannon reportedly mulled the idea of having a mole apply to the social media giant and report back from the inside.

A cockamamie scheme like that was destined to backfire. Zuckerberg isn’t dumb enough to let just anyone waltz into his A.I. fortress. But Bannon, a terra firma philosopher who doesn’t let his head get lost in the clouds, showed foresight. Republican blindness toward business is dissipating.

Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that the “pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own.” Zuckerberg wouldn’t be the first to parlay his private enterprise into a political career (our current president is testament to that), but he would be the most potent.

Facebook didn’t determine the last election, but as the company continues to gobble up attention spans like an insatiable Pac-Man, it’s plausible that it could one day skew a presidential contest.

That should give even the strictest laissez-faire conservative pause. Power’s a force not limited to the state. In some cases, it can be as innocent as the simple brushing of a phone screen with your thumb.

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