The Largest Autocracy on Earth
Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power; it’s time we treated it that way.
In 1947, Albert Einstein, writing in this magazine, proposed the creation of a single world government to protect humanity from the threat of the atomic bomb. His utopian idea did not take hold, quite obviously, but today, another visionary is building the simulacrum of a cosmocracy.
Mark Zuckerberg, unlike Einstein, did not dream up Facebook out of a sense of moral duty, or a zeal for world peace. This summer, the population of Zuckerberg’s supranational regime reached 2.9 billion monthly active users, more humans than live in the world’s two most populous nations—China and India—combined.
To Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, they are citizens of Facebookland. Long ago he conspicuously started calling them “people” instead of “users,” but they are still cogs in an immense social matrix, fleshy morsels of data to satisfy the advertisers that poured $54 billion into Facebook in the first half of 2021 alone—a sum that surpasses the gross domestic products of most nations on Earth.
GDP makes for a telling comparison, not just because it gestures at Facebook’s extraordinary power, but because it helps us see Facebook for what it really is. Facebook is not merely a website, or a platform, or a publisher, or a social network, or an online directory, or a corporation, or a utility. It is all of these things. But Facebook is also, effectively, a hostile foreign power.
This is plain to see in its single-minded focus on its own expansion; its immunity to any sense of civic obligation; its record of facilitating the undermining of elections; its antipathy toward the free press; its rulers’ callousness and hubris; and its indifference to the endurance of American democracy.
Some of Facebook’s most vocal critics push for antitrust regulation, the unwinding of its acquisitions, anything that might slow its snowballing power. But if you think about Facebook as a nation-state—an entity engaged in a cold war with the United States and other democracies—you’ll see that it requires a civil-defense strategy as much as regulation from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Hillary Clinton told me last year that she’d always caught a whiff of authoritarianism from Zuckerberg. “I feel like you’re negotiating with a foreign power sometimes,” she said. “He’s immensely powerful.” One of his early mantras at Facebook, according to Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in their book, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, was “company over country.” When that company has all the power of a country itself, the line takes on a darker meaning.
The basic components of nationhood go something like this: You need land, currency, a philosophy of governance, and people.
When you’re an imperialist in the metaverse, you need not worry so much about physical acreage—though Zuckerberg does own 1,300 acres of Kauai, one of the less populated Hawaiian islands. As for the rest of the items on the list, Facebook has them all.
Facebook is developing its own money, a blockchain-based payment system known as Diem (formerly Libra) that financial regulators and banks have feared could throw off the global economy and decimate the dollar.
And for years Zuckerberg has talked about his principles of governance for the empire he built: “Connectivity is a human right”; “Voting is voice”; “Political ads are an important part of voice”; “The great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers.” He’s extended those ideas outward in a new kind of colonialism—with Facebook effectively annexing territories where large numbers of people weren’t yet online. Its controversial program Free Basics, which offered people free internet access as long as Facebook was their portal to the web, was hawked as a way to help connect people. But its true purpose was to make Facebook the de facto internet experience in countries all over the world.
What Facebook possesses most of all, of course, is people—a gigantic population of individuals who choose to live under Zuckerberg’s rule. In his writings on nationalism, the political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson suggested that nations are defined not by their borders but by imagination. The nation is ultimately imaginary because its citizens “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Communities, therefore, are distinguished most of all “by the style in which they are imagined.”
Zuckerberg has always tried to get Facebook users to imagine themselves as part of a democracy. That’s why he tilts toward the language of governance more than of corporate fiat. In February 2009, Facebook revised its terms of service so that users couldn’t delete their data even if they quit the site. Rage against Facebook’s surveillance state was swift and loud, and Zuckerberg begrudgingly reversed the decision, saying it had all been a misunderstanding. At the same time, he introduced in a blog post the concept of a Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, inviting people to share their feedback—but only if they signed up for a Facebook account.
“More than 175 million people use Facebook,” he wrote. “If it were a country, it would be the sixth most populated country in the world. Our terms aren’t just a document that protect our rights; it’s the governing document for how the service is used by everyone across the world.”
Since then, Facebook’s population has swelled to 17 times that size. Along the way, Zuckerberg has repeatedly cast himself as the head of the nation of Facebook. His obsession with world dominance seems fated in retrospect—his long-standing preoccupation with the Roman empire generally and Augustus Caesar specifically, the digital version of Risk he coded as a teenager, his abiding interest in human psychology and emotional contagion.
In 2017, in a winding manifesto about his “global community,” Zuckerberg put it this way: “Overall, it is important that the governance of our community scales with the complexity and demands of its people. We are committed to always doing better, even if that involves building a worldwide voting system to give you more voice and control.” Of course, as in any business, the only votes that matter to Facebook are those of its shareholders. Yet Facebook feels the need to cloak its profit-seeking behavior in false pretenses about the very democratic values it threatens.
Pretending to outsource his most consequential decisions to empty imitations of democratic bodies has become a useful mechanism for Zuckerberg to avoid accountability. He controls about 58 percent of voting shares at the company, but in 2018 Facebook announced the creation of a sort of judiciary branch known, in Orwellian fashion, as the Oversight Board. The board makes difficult calls on thorny issues having to do with content moderation. In May it handed down the decision to uphold Facebook’s suspension of Donald Trump. Facebook says that the board’s members are independent, but it hires and pays them.
Now, according to The New York Times, Facebook is considering forming a kind of legislative body, a commission that could make decisions on elections-related matters—political bias, political advertising, foreign interference. This would further divert scrutiny from Facebook leadership.
All of these arrangements have the feel of a Potemkin justice system, one that reveals Facebook for what it really is: a foreign state, populated by people without sovereignty, ruled by a leader with absolute power.
Facebook’s defenders like to argue that it’s naive to suggest that Facebook’s power is harmful. Social networks are here, they insist, and they’re not going anywhere. Deal with it. They’re right that no one should wish to return to the information ecosystems of the 1980s, or 1940s, or 1880s. The democratization of publishing is miraculous; I still believe that the triple revolution of the internet, smartphones, and social media is a net good for society. But that’s true only if we insist on platforms that are in the public’s best interest. Facebook is not.
Facebook is a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse. It is designed for blunt-force emotional reaction, reducing human interaction to the clicking of buttons. The algorithm guides users inexorably toward less nuanced, more extreme material, because that’s what most efficiently elicits a reaction. Users are implicitly trained to seek reactions to what they post, which perpetuates the cycle. Facebook executives have tolerated the promotion on their platform of propaganda, terrorist recruitment, and genocide. They point to democratic virtues like free speech to defend themselves, while dismantling democracy itself.
These hypocrisies are by now as well established as Zuckerberg’s reputation for ruthlessness. Facebook has conducted psychological experiments on its users without their consent. It built a secret tiered system to exempt its most famous users from certain content-moderation rules and suppressed internal research into Instagram’s devastating effects on teenage mental health. It has tracked individuals across the web, creating shadow profiles of people who have never registered for Facebook so it can trace their contacts. It swears to fight disinformation and misinformation, while misleading researchers who study these phenomena and diluting the reach of quality news on its platforms.
Even Facebook loyalists concede that it’s a place for garbage, for hyperbole, for mendacity—but argue that people should be free to manage their intake of such toxins. “While Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar,” the longtime Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth wrote in a 2019 memo. “Like all things it benefits from moderation … If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position.”
What Bosworth failed to say is that Facebook doesn’t just have the capacity to poison the individual; it’s poisoning the world. When 2.9 billion people are involved, what’s needed is moderation in scale, not moderation in personal intake. The freedom to destroy yourself is one thing. The freedom to destroy democratic society is quite another.
Facebook sold itself to the masses by promising to be an outlet for free expression, for connection, and for community. In fact, it is a weapon against the open web, against self-actualization, and against democracy. All of this so Facebook could dangle your data in front of advertisers.
To one degree or another, this is something Facebook has in common with its subsidiary Instagram and its rivals Google, YouTube (which Google owns), and Amazon. All position their existence as somehow noble—their purpose is, variously, to help people share their life, to provide answers to the most difficult questions, and to deliver what you need when you need it. But of the behemoths, Facebook is most ostentatious in its moral abdications.
Facebook needs its users to keep on believing that its dominance is a given, to ignore what it is doing to humanity and use its services anyway. Anyone who seeks to protect individual freedom and democratic governance should be bothered by this acceptance of the status quo.
Regulators have their sights set on Facebook for good reason, but the threat the company poses to Americans is about much more than its monopoly on emerging technology. Facebook’s rise is part of a larger autocratic movement, one that’s eroding democracy worldwide as authoritarian leaders set a new tone for global governance. Consider how Facebook portrays itself as a counterbalance to a superpower like China. Company executives have warned that attempts to interfere with Facebook’s untrammeled growth—through regulating the currency it is developing, for example—would be a gift to China, which wants its own cryptocurrency to be dominant. In other words, Facebook is competing with China the way a nation would.
Perhaps Americans have become so cynical that they have given up on defending their freedom from surveillance, manipulation, and exploitation. But if Russia or China were taking the exact same actions to undermine democracy, Americans would surely feel differently. Seeing Facebook as a hostile foreign power could force people to acknowledge what they’re participating in, and what they’re giving up, when they log in. In the end it doesn’t really matter what Facebook is; it matters what Facebook is doing.
What could we do in return? “Socially responsible” companies could boycott Facebook, starving it of ad revenue in the same way that trade sanctions deprive autocracies of foreign exchange. In the past, however, boycotts by major corporations like Coca-Cola and CVS have barely made a ripple. Maybe rank-and-file Facebook employees could lobby for reform, but nothing short of mass walkouts, of the sort that would make the continued operation of Facebook impossible, would be likely to have much effect. And that would require extraordinary courage and collective action.
Facebook users are the group with the most power to demand change. Facebook would be nothing without their attention. American citizens, and those of other democracies, might shun Facebook and Instagram, not merely as a lifestyle choice, but as a matter of civic duty.
Could enough people come together to bring down the empire? Probably not. Even if Facebook lost 1 billion users, it would have another 2 billion left. But we need to recognize the danger we’re in. We need to shake the notion that Facebook is a normal company, or that its hegemony is inevitable.
Perhaps someday the world will congregate as one, in peace, as Einstein dreamed, indivisible by the forces that have launched wars and collapsed civilizations since antiquity. But if that happens, if we can save ourselves, it certainly won’t be because of Facebook. It will be in spite of it.
This article appears in the November 2021 print edition with the headline “Facebookland.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.