A Tale of Two Empires: Facebook and America

pton calls ‘social death’.

The enduring characteristic of empires is not that they rise, but that they fall. Some, such as Rome, fall due to corruption. Others, such as France, fall due to military defeats. Still others may fall due to technological deficits, as was the case with the Soviet Union, or due to societal unrest, as was the case with Tsarist Russia. Over the past decade, many have questioned whether the American Empire has fallen. Over the past week many have asked- has the Facebook Empire fallen? While these two Empires are not ruled by the same Creaser, their fate is nonetheless intertwined, as is their power.

Facebook is inherently American. Its logic is that of an aggressive marketplace on which individuals are transformed into brands that compete over attention. To garner followers, Facebook users perform acrobatic fetes. They Selfie their high school graduations, wedding ceremonies, promotions as well as their divorces, depressions and miscarriages. Users also create a unique brand in terms of content and style. Some create a visual brand based on black and white images of urban life; others dedicate their profile to celebrities or conspiracy theories. Yet the more personal a post – the more a user bares his or her soul – the more Likes they will garner and the more followers they will accumulate. Those who refuse to bare their souls are destined to be ignored and experience what Lupton calls ‘social death’.

Ignorance is a dish best served cold on Facebook.

Facebook is also inherently American as it is essentially a newspaper. When examining American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the sheer number of newspapers published daily. Every township, county, region and state was home to several newspapers. De Tocqueville evaluated the differences between French and American newspapers. While in French newspaper space was occupied mostly by news and only limited space was allocated to advertisement, in America the opposite was true. American papers were filled with adverts, separated by a few journalistic reports. And while French newspapers offered commentary on issues of substance, American papers dealt with sensationalist reporting of mundane issues. Finally, American journalists appealed to emotion, while French journalists appealed to reason.

And what is a Facebook profile if not a daily, or hourly, news bulletin? Every profile is a newspaper titled “The Daily Me”. As was the case in de Tocqueville’s time, “The Daily Me” often deals with trivial issues such as live reporting from a dance party or musings on the latest episode of “Sex Education”. “Daily Me” articles, or Posts, are all sensationalist and appeal to emotion as publishers, or users, wish to accumulate readers. The more emotional a Post, the more it denounces a politician, or a government or a product, the more it cries out in favor or against an injustice, the greater its circulation. “the Daily Me” is thus the digital branch of “the Daily Mail”. When “the Daily Me” deals with matters of substance it does so with a commercial goal in mind and the newspaper itself is nothing more than an all-encompassing advertisement.

Finally, Facebook is one of the main drivers of American prestige and power. The world is connected through an American company that celebrates American values and acts in accordance with American ideals. Like America, its reach is global. Communities in Qatar, the UK, France, India and Japan all exist online thanks to Facebook, or thanks to American technology. Governments too are avid members of the Facebook kingdom. The Kenyan government engages with its Diaspora on Facebook, Israel tries to legitimize its policies on Facebook while France promotes its cultural achievements in the form of Facebook videos. Facebook is central to the American economy as it is the very foundation of the digital society, one rooted on shared surveillance and customized advertising. Most importantly, Facebook’s seat of power, Silicon Valley, is the home of American innovation, ingenuity and influence. It is for this reason that some states now have Ambassadors to Silicon Valley and why tech companies such as Facebook operate foreign ministries that interact with, and lobby foreign governments.

It is through Facebook that the world is made more America, and it is thanks to Facebook that America’s influence is still strong. Yet over the past weeks, Facebook has attracted a title wave of indignation, criticism and even hatred. What began with revelations about the company’s willingness to harm its users, continued with an on camera confession of a former employee turned whistleblower. Then came a technical malfunction that made Facebook, and its other products such as Instagram, inaccessible. For a moment, the world existed without Facebook, without hourly bulletins, without hateful pleas and without self-indulgent news headlines such as “Just baked my first pie!”. For some, the malfunction demonstrated how dependent people have become on Facebook. For others, it was a breath of fresh air, a reminder of the world of yesteryear when one actually met and talked to his/her friends, rather than simply following them online.

In the past, Facebook has survived scandals and corruption. The use of Facebook to sway the 2016 US elections, the spread of hate speech and calls to violence on the platform, even the President’s misuse of the platform, did not lead to Facebook’s demise. Facebook promised to be better. To do better. Like a convict meeting a parole board, Facebook stated that “It was a changed person. Hand to god. It learned from its mistakes. It was ready to become a productive member of society. It was ready to do away with its bad habits”. Time and again, Facebook was paroled only to commit new transgressions.

Many have argued that Facebook does more harm than good, and that it must be shut down. Indeed, Facebook corrupts absolutely. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, Posting is the method: the object is the soul. Facebook transforms individuals into hyper PR specialists while the basis of “Friendships” becomes a commercial transaction: follow me and I will follow you, Like me and I will Like you. Facebook can also harm society: it can easily sway political fortunes, it can harm the public by spreading misinformation and disinformation, it enables foreign meddling in internal affairs and it allows conspiracy theories to take root diminishing trust in government.

Yet others remind us that Facebook is also a vehicle for social change, for voicing political opposition, for giving voice to minority groups blacklisted by old media, for allowing individuals to run for public office and for finding love and support in hours of hardship and despair.

The question posed this week, however, was- has Facebook reached the point of no return? Has its image become so negative that it could no longer operate? The answer is no. True to its American nature, Facebook is a mammoth, a monopoly, a superpower but unlike America it flexes its super muscles. Facebook makes examples out of individuals. By shutting President Trump’s accounts, Facebook sent a shiver down the spine of world leaders and elected officials everywhere. With flick of the switch, these leaders could be expelled from the kingdom of Facebook destined to wander in the desert of obscurity known as “old media”. The company is still too powerful to be blocked, too big to fail.

That Facebook needs reforming in certain ways. That Facebook will be forced to reform is less certain. Despite its ills and limitations, Facebook is as central to American power as aircraft carriers and submarines. As the American Empire faces new challenges, and must vanquish new challengers, it seems unlikely that it will harm one its most important power resources. Yet much like the American Empire, the Facebook Empire has passed its zenith. Both Empires may suffer a slow and steady decline as the century progresses.

This is not the end of Facebook, or of America. This is not even the beginning of their end. Yet it is perhaps the end of their beginning.

About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com
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