Power has always attracted lobbyists. Before the age of democracy, courtiers petitioned kings. As politicians took their place, lobbying firms set up camp in capital cities around the west. But as revelations of the inner workings of Facebook reveal, the digital era has brought about a new kind of king, and a new kind of courtier.
The king in question is Mark Zuckerberg — a comparison he’ll no doubt find flattering, given his well-publicized infatuation with Augustus Caesar. And the courtiers? They aren’t much different to the lobbyists and medieval sycophants of yesteryear — they’re special interests looking for special favors. And the old globalist establishment is the most dangerous special interest of them all.
Panicked old-world elites whose authority has been disrupted by Silicon Valley are determined to take back control from the tech giants. A new exposé, Wired’s “15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook,” describes the desperate land-grab currently underway for influence over the precious algorithms that increasingly shape the focus of the public’s attention — and by extension, what they read, buy, and vote for.
The article cites comments from George Soros at Davos — the annual globalist get-together in Switzerland — angrily dubbing tech giants “the masters of the universe.”
“The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position … Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered.”
It’s ironic that the arch-globalist progressive would use a nickname for the tech giants popularized by Breitbart News, but the fact that Silicon Valley is under attack from both the left and the right is another sign of how power has shifted.
Both establishment and anti-establishment recognize that achieving their political goals depends as much on the policies of Silicon Valley giants as they do on the policies of parliaments and congresses. But the policies they want are very different — the anti-establishment know they can win on an equal playing field, and want big tech to preserve that. Establishment elites , recognizing the depth of their unpopularity, pressure big tech to take away that level playing field, and they’ve developed a host of rhetorical weapons to achieve that aim — chief among them the idea that big tech must promote “authoritative news sources” — meaning their own corporate media outlets.
According to Wired, Facebook’s top executives have been pressing Zuckerberg to give special favors to “serious” publications, with only Republican Joel Kaplan working to stem the tide of censorship.
The key question was whether the company should introduce new factors into its algorithm to help serious publications. The product team working on news wanted Facebook to increase the amount of public content—things shared by news organizations, businesses, celebrities—allowed in News Feed. They also wanted the company to provide stronger boosts to publishers deemed trustworthy, and they suggested the company hire a large team of human curators to elevate the highest-quality news inside of News Feed. The company discussed setting up a new section on the app entirely for news and directed a team to quietly work on developing it; one of the team’s ambitions was to try to build a competitor to Apple News.
Some of the company’s most senior execs, notably Chris Cox, agreed that Facebook needed to give serious publishers a leg up. Others pushed back, especially Joel Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush who was now Facebook’s vice president of global public policy. Supporting high-quality outlets would inevitably make it look like the platform was supporting liberals, which could lead to trouble in Washington, a town run mainly by conservatives. Breitbart and the Daily Caller, Kaplan argued, deserved protections too. At the end of the climactic meeting, on July 9, Zuckerberg sided with Kaplan and announced that he was tabling the decision about adding ways to boost publishers, effectively killing the plan.
Perhaps deliberately, given that Wired is part of the progressive establishment, the article emphasizes a moment where Zuckerberg refused to boost corporate media. But towards the end of the piece, Wired acknowledges the truth: Facebook has been purging so-called “fake news” and restricting the free flow of information.
Another deep critique is that Facebook simply sped up the flow of information to a point where society couldn’t handle it. Now the company has started to slow it down. The company’s fake-news fighters focus on information that’s going viral. WhatsApp has been reengineered to limit the number of people with whom any message can be shared.
It’s interesting that Wired, once considered the most prestigious publication in tech news, frames the free flow of information as a bad thing — something that “society couldn’t handle.” Elsewhere, the article describes the mission of greater global connectivity as Facebook’s “original sin.”
The message also highlighted another of the company’s original sins: its assertion that if you just give people better tools for sharing, the world will be a better place. That’s just false. Sometimes Facebook makes the world more open and connected; sometimes it makes it more closed and disaffected. Despots and demagogues have proven to be just as adept at using Facebook as democrats and dreamers.
It’s highly significant that Wired, long the bible of the tech industry, now believes that Silicon Valley’s foundational values of connecting the world and leveling the information ecosystem are its “original sin.” It’s another sign that the corporate media, and the wider global establishment, recognizes that they simply can’t compete with anti-establishment forces on an equal playing field.
The pressure Facebook is under is a sign of the power that it and other tech giants wield. The Wired expose is a good snapshot of that pressure. But the globalist establishment, the faction that has achieved the most success in persuading Silicon Valley’s god-emperors into doing their bidding, pursue a deeply anti-democratic goal — the restriction of the free flow of information, and the marginalization of independent, anti-establishment media. The fact that they’re getting their way is a reminder of the titanic battle for internet freedom that lies ahead.
Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter, Gab.ai and add him on Facebook. Email tips and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.