Marina Hyde* – The Guardian
This is about more than Facebook and news – it’s about the pursuit of power in a world where companies are stronger than countries
You can say Mark Zuckerberg puts you in mind of a lot of things. An efit of a man police would like to speak to in connection with supermarket food tampering. A pink and overscrubbed supervillain – Lex Loofah – or the classical bust of a Roman emperor who’s paused the rollout of his hair feature, and lists his hobbies as “flaying” and “indifference”.
Ultimately, though, the most alarming way of looking at the Facebook boss is just factually: he’s the world’s most powerful oligarch, selling the lives of 2.7 billion monthly active users to advertisers, and actually modifying the behaviour of those users with a business model that deliberately amplifies incendiary, nasty, and frequently fake and dangerous things because that’s what keeps you on his platform longer. So yes: considering all that, it’s just a comforting cop-out to say “ooh, Zuckerberg looks like the character in a movie who’s just delivered the line ‘leave no trace of the village’”. Forget post-truth. Mark’s basically post-metaphor.
Anyway, Zuckerberg is in the news along with News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, in a heartwarming generational fight between billionaires for who gets to say: “Bitch, I’m not IN the news, I OWN the news.” In short, Murdoch (and other news publishers) have long demanded Facebook and Google pay for people linking to or discussing their content on their platforms, or including it in search results. Facebook and others have long resisted.
Having failed to thrash out the issue in the thrashing yurt at various barefoot mogul retreats, Murdoch effectively instructed the Australian government to shake down the tech firms to pay publishers for the sharing of links, or stop allowing the practice. Yes, here he comes, Monty Burns-Unit, absolutely refusing to allow the trident to be prised from his claw by the Valley bros. This week, Google chucked him some undisclosed loose change just to shut him up, but Zuckerberg refused, turning off news sharing in Australia and removing most Australian media from its platform, as well as pages run by state health departments, charities and others. Alas, there is outcry, with the publishers seemingly not wanting the thing they said they wanted any more. It’s one of those fights where you’re rooting for the asteroid to end it.
Of course, Facebook is the galactic leader in PR crises. In the company’s short, unimaginably powerful existence, they have made so many monstrous cock-ups and on such grand scales that it seems reasonable to predict the full collapse of human civilisation will be immediately succeeded by a Facebook statement containing the words: “We know we have more work to do.” It’ll probably have been drafted by Nick Clegg, whose political endpoint was always going to be donning Earth’s last crew-necked sweater and doing comms for the apocalypse.
There is widespread outrage around the world over what’s happened in Australia, particularly from politicians still fighting the last war, specifically the one against Murdoch. Here’s some free BREAKING NEWS, guys: you lost that one. And given the scale of your newer foe, well … the tech companies have grown so far past the stage at which, say, oil companies were broken up, or inquiries into Microsoft begun, that humanity should probably stick a fiver on you losing this one too.
The true tragedy, of course, is that these guys have so much in common. Rupert Murdoch recently received the Covid vaccination, which I read on Zuckerberg’s platform means he’s been injected with Bill Gates, a line of medical inquiry I hope to see enthusiastically taken up by anti-vax-adjacent Tucker Carlson on Murdoch’s own Fox News. Can people this ideologically similar really be so far apart? Let’s hope they can still put their differences aside to form some sort of Injustice League.
As for the rest of us, it’s hard being told how beautiful it is to connect by Zuckerberg, whose smile hasn’t connected with his eyes since 2014. If friends are so important to our common goals, how come he doesn’t have any? Maybe commodifying friendship gives Mark the excuse for not partaking in it. You don’t see crack dealers using their own product, as the saying goes.
People often claim you’re frozen developmentally at the time you become famous, which presumably stunts Zuckerberg back at the stage he was in his Harvard dorm room. I can’t believe a product created to rate women has ended up as what the business professor and tech commentator Scott Galloway calls “the biggest prostitute of hate in the history of mankind”. Honestly, what were the chances?
In her book The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse chronicles her time at Facebook, from being one of the firm’s earliest employees to eventually becoming the person Zuckerberg appoints to write in his voice. Losse’s job was to impart Mark’s thoughts on “the way the world was going” to the company and the wider public. When I read the book, it was hard not to deem his personal philosophy nonexistent. It’s like he’s never thought about anything, ever, other than computer science and personal power.
Naturally, Zuckerberg orders Losse to watch The West Wing. This was a while ago, of course, and it wasn’t quite four years ago that Zuckerberg embarked on a US listening tour, taking in “little people” locations like Iowa truck stops. This was widely interpreted as the start of a long run-up at a traditional presidential campaign. We haven’t heard a lot of that talk recently, but it seems reasonable to believe that Zuckerberg has since realised the president is very much junior personnel – something Murdoch understood decades ago, as far as Australian and UK prime ministers were concerned. Never mind truck stops being for little people. Politics is for little people.
Of course, Zuckerberg is sometimes required to visit Washington and attend hearings, occasions for which Nick Clegg dresses the normally T-shirted statesman as the reluctant teenage best man at his mother’s third wedding. But as he accrues more and more unprecedented global power, the question every single politician should be asking themselves, like, yesterday, is: what does Mark Zuckerberg want with us? They should have clicked long ago that he isn’t remotely interested in news as an idea or service. In 2016, Zuckerberg summarily fired the team that curated “trending” news topics and replaced them with an algorithm that promptly began pushing fabricated news, as well as a video of a man wanking with a McChicken Sandwich.
One of several essays Zuckerberg instructed Losse to write in his voice was “Companies over countries”. She resigned without completing it, but not before having asked him if he could expand the slogan. “I think we are moving to a world in which we all become cells in a single organism,” comes the mild reply, “where we can communicate automatically and can all work together seamlessly.” Wow. A vision of our future that has me immediately paging Morpheus. Was Murdoch … was Murdoch actually the blue pill all along?. Fri 19 Feb 2021
*Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist