A response to a hot take on Myanmar on Facebook

The only reason I had the pleasure of reading your hot take on Myanmar here is that Facebook assembled it into my feed for me. It put it right at the top.

Does that mean that "Facebook is manipulating our opinions about Myanmar!"? Probably not intentionally, no. Facebook is an enormous message board built by engineers to be as socially engaging as possible. It doesn't care about Myanmar.

But we are not interacting in the same way we would if we were face to face in a bar (let's say, the Highlander in Atlanta) talking about this subject, or even if we were arguing on simple message boards. There are things you could say in a status that would never bubble up to my feed. There are friends of yours or mine that could speak up and alter the course of the conversation, whose words we would never read.

You believe that you have ultimate agency here. But you do not. Every word you type into this platform is mediated: it is raw material for my personal content chili. When we talk to each other in the Highlander, we're both in the Highlander. But when you talk to me here, and when I talk at you, we're not in the same place. We're each eating our own chili, speaking to each other from utterly different contexts.

And so it was in Myanmar. And the people in Myanmar, eating their respective chilis, decided to murder one another.

Can such a thing happen without Facebook? For sure. Is Facebook responsible?

Before we say no, let's consider a representative case. Here's a topical news item.

A militia plotted to kidnap Governor Whitmer of Michigan and put her on "trial". The groups that conducted this plot organized in on Facebook. More importantly, Facebook connected the group: Group members were recommended by Facebook community building code.

So who's responsible?

Foremost responsible are the plotters of this kidnapping themselves. A thief may stand in court and say, "Society has let me down," and while that may be true, the thief is still responsible for their actions.

But this is a group that was blindly assembled by Facebook. It is as if Facebook identified individuals with a shared interest in thievery and connected them with each other, and they subsequently went out and committed a crime. They found people with similar chili, and they helped them eat that chili together. They ate Facebook chili, and they used it to illegal ends.

Facebook can't make whatever media chili they want and feed it to people and then claim, "People are responsible for their own words and actions, we are simply a neutral platform." They are responsible for the consequences of what they show to people and what they connect people with.

So let's not engage in a false dichotomy. Facebook's responsibility does not absolve Facebook users of their responsibility. The Holocaust is not evidence that Facebook had nothing to do with Myanmar. Facebook couldn't have "fixed" Myanmar. The darkest heart of Silicon Valley evil is the idea that technology companies are in fact responsible for everything. That is why Facebook is where it is in Myanmar or the Philippines: in the sense of a fait accompli, Facebook really is all media, and accountable to no one.

But Facebook is not capable of governing this territory. It has no plan. ("Machine learning" is not a plan.) Facebook would have you believe that it bears responsibility for governing this territory. The reality is that we bear responsibility for allowing Facebook to do a job it is not and will never be capable of doing. Facebook cannot responsibly run the media in the Philippines, no more than it can be trusted to make my chili for me.

I personally believe that if we held Facebook to its societal responsibilities, it would no longer be a viable economic proposition. I also believe that as future generations come of age in this brave new world, they will come to understand in their bones the deleterious effects of Facebook-style social media and shun it. It will be mentioned in the same sentence as gambling or prostitution.

But I don't think we're there yet. Until then, write your congressperson or call them on the phone to advocate for stronger antitrust enforcement. Facebook's bigness is a far more clear and present danger than anything else about them.

Oh, never, ever forget: you're eating the chili. And you're in the chili.